Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Word About Political Corruption

David Gergen on Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich: "I have a hard time pronouncing his name. I just call him the idiot."

Over the past two months, we’ve seen both the best and worst in our politics. On the one hand, we’ve seen America smash racial barriers and prove global naysayers wrong, John McCain concede gracefully, and Barack Obama put together a flawless transition. On the other hand, we’ve had Senator Ted Stevens convicted of seven felonies, Governor Rod Blagojevich indicted on dozens of various nefarious schemes, various corruption charges made against powerful House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, and the long-awaited defeat of New Orleans Rep. William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson.

It’s sad, but over the last four years or so, corruption in our national politics has been almost routine. The difference between the current stretch and its long run-up? After years of Republican indictments and convictions, four of the five names listed above are Democrats.

I’ve had numerous Republican friends in both Idaho and New Hampshire insist to me that Democrats are more corrupt than Republicans, and that it only seems different because prosecutors and journalists are biased. And of course, we’ve all heard the Democratic Party’s official mantra that the Republican Party fosters a “culture of corruption.” Both arguments are horse hockey. I don’t believe for an instant that a person’s views on health care or climate change have anything to do with their personal ethics. Democrats say Republicans are corrupt because of their ties to business, but that affects both parties. Republicans say Democrats are corrupt because they don’t care for personal responsibility, but we do, we just think some social achievements are beyond the reach of the individual. The real reason for political corruption is nonpartisan: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Over the past several years, Republicans have controlled almost all levels of power, and so they have also controlled almost all levels of corruption. It’s a veritable laundry list: Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney, and Vito Fossella convicted, Tom DeLay indicted, Don Young and John Doolittle investigated, and Don Sherwood and Mark Foley dinking around – and that’s just the House of Representatives. The Senate featured Ted Stevens and Larry Craig convicted and David Vitter hanging out with prostitutes. In the Administration, Scooter Libby and David Safavian were convicted and Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzalez, and a host of Gonzalez’s Justice Dept. aides were investigated. Oh, and let’s not forget Governors George Ryan and Bob Taft. The Democrats’ reply? One Congressman indicted (Jefferson) and one more investigated (Alan Mollohan). When NBC’s Matt Lauer interviewed DeLay in 2006 and asked him about Republican corruption, DeLay tried to insist there were just as many bad Democrats as there were Republicans, but after naming Jefferson and Mollohan, he had to go back decades to come up with an equal amount of examples. He also neglected to point out that none of these Democrats were in leadership positions like his own, and that while Republicans instantly rallied around him during their investigations, Democrats were quick to turn against Jefferson (and now, in under a week, have literally all turned against Blagojevich.)

Yet there is some truth to DeLay’s point – not for 2006, but for history. It’s ridiculous to suggest that the weak Democrats of 2000-2006 were as corrupt as the powerful Republicans of that same era, but indeed, the powerful Democrats of the 1980s were as corrupt as the powerful Republicans of the 2000s. Gerry Studds’ page scandal, the Keating Five (John McCain and four Democrats), the Abscam sting, several Congressmen convicted of bribery and racketeering, and Speaker Jim Wright’s speaking fees all come to mind. Again: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Now that Republicans have little legislative and no executive power at the national level, methinks we will see the number of opportunities for them to become corrupt dwindle while the number of Democrats giving into the suddenly-available sleaze skyrockets.

For six years, the Republicans in Congress refused to investigate themselves. Speaker Denny Hastert put a virtual moratorium on ethics investigations, and nothing was done until Democrats won and put Pat Leahy in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Henry Waxman in charge of House Oversight. Bulldog Waxman’s now moving to Energy and Commerce, which is thrilling, but I do hope that his replacement, Edolphus Towns, is just as aggressive at investigating Democrats as Waxman was at Republicans. I doubt it, but we’ll need it.

Not all powerful politicians are corrupt. Henry Kissinger once said that corrupt politicians give the other 10% a bad name. It’s funny, but having spent time in DC, I think it’s fair to say that while most big-name pols are out of touch, they’re also mostly good men and women. I trust Democrats like Joe Biden and Russ Feingold, and Republicans like Chuck Hagel and Arlen Specter. The new head honcho of them all, Barack Obama, hasn’t been around DC long enough to be tainted by power (although hey, Chicago is Chicago), and I think he’s the real deal. I even think George W. Bush is a good guy. He is an incompetent, arrogant buffoon who keeps his blinders on to be sure, but while many of the people who surround him are as corrupt as all get out, those blinders keep from seeing it, and what he can’t say can’t affect him.

That said, though, DC is a whole ‘nother universe. The marble urinal separators in the Senate bathrooms give one a skewed view of economics; the security barriers on every Hill street corner paint a different picture of terrorism than most Americans face; and the three Capitol Hill papers and Washington Post all cover different stories than do most small-town papers. It’s easy to lose your head where federal politics are concerned, as Blagojevich, Rangel, and Jefferson all show. Keeping that mind, I hope Democrats will police themselves in the future as well as they have policed Republicans in the past.


Jordan said...

I doubt it; they're in power now and they'll know they can get away with it just as the Republicans did previously.

"The more things change; the more they stay the same." This may be an old adage but that doesn't make it any less true.

Cany said...

Your points are well taken.

I have spent considerable time both in Sacramento and D.C. lobbying on environmental issues. I'm thankful I don't do that anymore.

A short story...

We had a key Sacto (CA) state leg vote coming up. There I was in my red (Nancy Reagan-like) suit, hair in a bun (I am a levis and long braid kind of gal normally) with tennis shoes on rummaging through the hallways looking for votes (read voting members).

A friend commented that I must not feel well. "Why?" I asked. They told me I had made already at least a dozen trips to the ladies room.

And WHAT was I doing in there? Washing my hands.

I didn't even realize it, but every time I get near either hill, I feel dirty. I have to elbow my way through the ten-deep lobbyists, deal with cranky and often issue-light staffers who wish I would disappear, and when I DO get to talk to the legislators myself, it is almost embarrassing to learn what they do and do not know about an issue they will soon be voting on. They get hit hard by the paid side. They generally view us as lightweight have-tos and I really resent(ed) that.

Before Cox moved to the SEC, I had a meeting with him and his Chief of Staff on a proposed radioactive waste dump going through the levels of regulatory approval slated for BLM lands in the Mojave Desert ABOVE a huge aquifer that supplies water to Southern California. I had put together a notebook--about 200 actually, and very expensive-- indexed by topic, with an incredible amount of information nicely separated by numerical page tabs, with a Table of Content, pull out color maps of various kinds, and a ton of easy to read data (that's always what is the hardest to find) etc. It was a real beaut. Took me almost two months to put it together.

Other than the very first sheet in the notebook (literally the first page), ALL the information was US Gov info. and it ALL worked to our advantage. That first page was the glance page (each topic linked to a section of the notebook). I used it for media Ed Boards, as well, and it was a HUGE hit with them. We got VERY good results.

I was dumbfounded when they told me that the waste was medical! I had, on my lap, 15 years of government books, in their bindings, opened to the appropriate pages (pie charts) to dispute it. (I always took them whole so they could not in any way infer I had altered anything.)

In one minute, I picked up each one showed it to them, laid it down, and picked up the next one and did likewise.

I will never forget the Chief of Staff saying to me, "This is not what the other side says."

I looked at him, looked at Cox and said, "What do you EXPECT? They stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars on this project. They will say anything to get this passed. This isn't about truth for them, it is about profit, plain and simple. You can believe your own federal documents, or you can believe a company that is in this business not for altruistic purposes but for huge profits."

Like, Duh?!

Prior, some of us had gone dumpster diving and brought back thousands of pages of draft documentation with hand written notes on it. (Lo be to the company without a shredder!) We made several copies, and various organizations were going through them prior to the state hearings.

When the the state senate rules committee realized they were being taken for a ride, they were not happy and rejected the project. The company got a guard to patrol. Silly them, a bit too late.

We were fighting a huge company whose rad dumps--EVERY ONE--were documented as leaking. They had the backing of anyone and everyone nuclear. We were out financed by tens and tens of thousands of dollars.

Eventually, we won (and also won in Texas--something a TX plaintiffs attorney told me was flat out not possible) and in every other state, as well.

The moral of the story is that yes, there ARE some honest people. But the problem is that their party whip marches them in lock-step as often as possible. The facts really don't matter to most at the federal level.

At the state level, it is often just as bad, and likewise at the local level.

The public just does NOT have the access to decisionmakers that lobbyists and the very wealthy have. We practically have to slide in under the closed door like a liquid metal terminator!

In my own county, many appointed land use commissioners and elected officials have ended up on the wrong side of honesty and have paid the price. And this in a county that has had, in the last 30 years, ONE democrat on the Board of Supervisors. Obviously, not much chance of dems going south since there just aren't any... which makes your point.

I might add that Staff is just as bad as elected officials. In a few particular cases, I have had their colleagues literally tell me they were on the take. I passed the info along to groups in that line of biz, but nothing ever came of any of it.

We have a hugely long way to go to level the playing field between citizen advocates and activists (many of which are scientists, for instance) and lobbyists (who aren't scientists but are hired guns).

All I can say is I miss Paul Wellstone. I spent quite a LOT of time in that office when I was in DC. He was REALLY into helping citizens do their part, not something either one of MY senators seems to care about at all.

Liberator_Rev said...

I don't know how old you are, but I've been observing national politics for going on 50 years, some of them spent in DC in the 60's and there's been no where near as much SERIOUS corruption when the Democrats were in power as the corruption when Republicans were given some power.
I've been cataloguing GOP corruption for years and update and publish it on my JesusNoRepublican.Org site, where I've challenged Republicans to come up with a comparable catalogue of Democratic corruption that can comepare with my site. Few have taken my challenge and the few who have tried have fallen on their faces.

Nathan Empsall said...

Jordan - You're probably right. If there is any hope, it's in the leadership. Joe Biden is no Dick Cheney, Obama's new staff is better than Safavian and Co., and as partisan and awful as Pelosi is, corrupt isn't on the list.

Cany - Thanks for sharing. I've read some of that story, I think, on your blog. It's an important one that speaks volumes - and I miss Wellstone too. Let's hope Franken pulls it off; he was friends with Wellstone, and it was his memory that inspired him to run.

Liberator_Rev, thanks for stopping by. I actually saw your website earlier today when I Googled "Republican corruption." Thanks for your hard work!