It’s been a long time …

… but this article by Robert Kaiser in the Washington Post on the collapse of the Washington political process over his 50 years at the Post is too important to let go by.

…for me, the fun has drained out of the game. So has the substance. I used to get excited about the big issues we covered — civil rights, women’s liberation, the fate of the country’s great cities, the end of the Cold War. I loved the politicians who brought those issues to life, from Everett McKinley Dirksen and Howard Baker (Dirksen’s son-in-law, curiously) to Russell B. Long and Edmund Muskie, from Bob Dole to George Mitchell — all people who knew and cared a great deal about governing. Watching them at work was exhilarating. Watching their successors, today’s senators and representatives, is just depressing.

Kaiser makes the critical point, so often missed, that Democrats are as much to blame for our predicament as Republicans — all because of how they responded to Ronald Reagan’s election.

[In 1981, the same year Democrats provided the votes to pass Reagan’s tax and spending cuts] Democrats in the House elected a new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Tony Coelho of California. It was a fateful choice. Coelho was remarkably good at the job. His colleagues saw him as a lifeline who would help them raise enough money to retain their House majority despite Reagan’s popularity. And he succeeded. Coelho convinced his fellow Democrats that in this new era, they had to raise money from business interests — just like Republicans. He set up new ways for those interests to make their wishes known to House Democrats. Democrats listened, took the money and retained big majorities. All it cost them was their soul.

The 1980s changed America. These were the years when corporations and wealthy individuals organized to fight back against the liberal forces that had dominated the ’60s and ’70s. Moneyed interests organized new groups, especially political action committees that were prepared to spend large sums to achieve their political objectives. This began the three-decade process that has made money the most important element of our public life, a form of pollution way beyond the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Coelho, along with Rep. Richard Gephardt and now-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, was one of an unholy troika of Democrats chasing corporate money through these years. Gephardt exuded an air of populism and pro-unionism, but lived and breathed for the money, the political money to feed his machine and ultimately his failed Presidential bid. McAuliffe, then as now, completely lacked substance and lived for the politics of the moment. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.


The Impact of Citizens United: more money than ever…

Sunday’s New York Times has a wonderfully detailed analysis of the real impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision: the sole link into a member of Congress’s office isn’t just money any more, it’s really big money, enough to finance lavish getaway events paid for by campaign committees and PACs.

Congress, after a corruption scandal that involved golf trips to Scotland and other getaways paid for by lobbyists, passed legislation in 2007 prohibiting lobbyists from giving lawmakers gifts of just about any value. But as is the norm in Washington, the lawmakers and lobbyists have figured out a workaround: Political campaigns and so-called leadership PACs controlled by the lawmakers now pay the expenses for the catering and the lawmakers’ lodging at these events — so they are not gifts — with money collected from the corporate executives and lobbyists, who are still indirectly footing the bill.

Now if you’re in Congress, fundraising doesn’t just pay for your campaign. It pays for your lavish lifestyle. 


How much money does your Congressman have?

The never-ending cycle of Congressional corruption continues, as laid out today in the latest installments of a Washington Post series on the wealth of our Members of Congress.

A California congressman helped secure tax breaks for racehorse owners — then purchased seven horses for himself when the new rules kicked in.

A Wyoming congresswoman co-sponsored legislation to double the life span of federal grazing permits that ranchers such as her husband rely on to feed cattle.

And a Pennsylvania congressman co-sponsored a natural gas bill as Exxon Mobil negotiated a deal that paid millions for his wife’s shares in two natural gas companies founded by her great-great-grandfather.
Those lawmakers were among 73 members of Congress who have sponsored or co-sponsored legislation in recent years that could benefit businesses or industries in which either they or their family members are involved or invested, according to a Washington Post analysis. The findings emerge from an examination by The Post of financial disclosure forms and public records for all 535 members of the House and Senate.

As one might expect, the 73 members include both Democrats and Republicans: corruption is a equal opportunity employer.


Who said what in the Convention speeches?

Two interesting concept maps for the convention speeches of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, using Jonathan Feinberg’s Wordle tool.

The first map is Romney’s speech, where you really have to struggle to find a prominent word that isn’t a noun. His map would look even worse, except for the fact that Wordle treated “President” and “president” as two different words. Look how prominently the words “America,” “American,” “Americans” appear; you can really tell a speech is full of air when the speaker is speaking most about the audience and scarcely speaking at all about ideas or policies.

Wordle: Mitt Romney's Convention Speech

Don’t waste time looking for either “worker” or “workers”; neither word appeared in Romney’s speech.

The second Wordle is President Obama’s speech. “Hope,” “know,” “believe,” “choose”: these are forward-looking words. They’re mirrored by a focus on the key things to move forward on — “jobs,” “workers,” “work,” “country” and, yes, “government,” because we Democrats recognize that government actually has a role to play in our future.

Wordle: Barack Obama's Convention Speech


California’s GOP … fading into the past…

The New York Times article today on the self-destruction of California’s GOP is an interesting reminder of the power of money in politics, and at the same moment of the limits thereof:

Republicans said their problems were made worse this year by the emphasis during the Republican presidential primaries on social issues, particularly tough immigration measures and opposition to abortion rights. That focus could make it tougher to win independent voters who are crucial to any Republican resurgence in California.

“The national party is becoming a party of very enthusiastic social conservatives driven by Southerners,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow with the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “It’s a problem if you’re an independent voter in California. If you think about the Republican Party, what national figure comes to mind? George W. Bush or Newt Gingrich.”

These are the same issues that made the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest permanently Democratic states. And the article’s quote from Steve Schmidt describes just how bad the situation is getting:

“The institution of the California Republican Party, I would argue, has effectively collapsed,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant who was a senior adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger. “It doesn’t do any of the things that a political party should do. It doesn’t register voters. It doesn’t recruit candidates. It doesn’t raise money. The Republican Party in the state institutionally has become a small ideological club that is basically in the business of hunting out heretics.”

Heretics? Republicans calling Republicans heretics? Schmidt’s not just a Schwarzenegger advisor; he worked for McCain, for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the National Republican Campaign Committee, and more. This is how parties lose a state.

For the Democratic and Republican Parties, this could be an opportunity (Democrats) or a crisis (Republicans). For Americans, it’s more dangerous; this is more of the disturbing trend toward polarization — on the one hand, Californians are socially beyond the paradigm of the national Republican Party, pushed into independent and Democratic positions on social issues; on the other hand, Republican Party leaders already see California as “the left coast,” and could use a California move to Democratic Party support as another reason to retreat into social orthodoxy. We’re already in a deep divide between elements of our nation; but — from my perspective — further  dividing the coasts from the rest of the nation isn’t a good idea.


Richard Lugar’s defeat…

Dick Lugar’s primary loss to Richard Mourdock in yesterday’s Indiana primary brings to mind the response from a recent New York magazine interview with retiring Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, when asked about Republican intransigence in the House:

People ask me, “Why don’t you guys get together?” And I say, “Exactly how much would you expect me to cooperate with Michele Bachmann?” And they say, “Are you saying they’re all Michele Bachmann?” And my answer is no, they’re not all Michele Bachmann. Half of them are Michele Bachmann. The other half are afraid of losing a primary to Michele Bachmann.

It may well be true, as Chris Cilizza argues in his post this morning, that Lugar lost touch with his Indiana constituents, and also that Lugar’s concession statement following his loss demonstrates poor sportsmanship, so to speak. Further, Mourdock may turn out to be more moderate and a better campaigner than 2010 Republican Senate nominees Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell. But the immediate and most important result of last night’s election is the message to all Republican candidates that another moderate Republican has lost to another Tea-Party-backed Michele Bachmann, meaning that the biggest risk to their career isn’t the other party, it’s the radicals in their own party.

That doesn’t bode well for the rest of this Congressional session. At least until it’s time for the post-election lame duck.


The kind of Occupy action that might produce results…

Don’t just Occupy Wall Street, occupy the federal regulatory agencies. That’s could be the mantra behind Occupy the SEC, the group that’s focused on ensuring that industry lobbyists don’t totally undermine the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act imposing new restrictions on Wall Street banks and other financial firms. From Suzy Khimm’s article posted to the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog last night:

While the Dodd-Frank act of 2010 provides a blueprint for the new regulations on Wall Street, it’s up to federal regulators to determine precisely how these guidelines will be put into effect. The regulatory process is intended to provide transparency into this process: Regulators will typically issue a preliminary version of a new rule and then allow for outside feedback during a public comment period.

Anyone is allowed to weigh in. But industry groups, lawyers and lobbyists issue an overwhelming number of formal comment letters to regulators, as they tend to have the most money, resources and technical expertise. The immense complexity of the Volcker Rule has proven daunting even to the country’s biggest banks and lobbying groups, which have devoted teams of lawyers and number-crunchers to puzzle out its impact on the industry.

Occupy the SEC aims to be a counterweight to this deep-pocketed lobbying push. Over the past six months, the Occupiers have slogged through the 300-plus pages of the Volcker Rule to figure out how the regulation would work in practice and whether it would — or could — come anywhere close to what its authors had intended.

Sitting in the streets chanting random slogans about justice is nice. Getting down and dirty in the middle of the fight over rulemaking, that’s how you have an impact.


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