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Out of Touch and on the take

March 15, 2010
The truth is that pretty much every Washington politician takes bribes–but in their legal form as campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists.

March 10, 2010       (

THE SLEAZE just keeps emerging from the corridors of power in the “world’s greatest democracy”–and it’s thoroughly bipartisan.

Last week, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) was forced to surrender his chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee–“temporarily,” he claimed–after the House Ethics Committee found that he had taken a number of trips to the Caribbean, basking in the sun on corporate money.

According to the New York Times, “The ethics panel is still investigating more serious accusations regarding Mr. Rangel’s fund-raising, his failure to pay federal taxes on rental income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic and his use of four rent-stabilized apartments provided by a Manhattan real estate developer.”

Meanwhile, New York Gov. David Paterson–himself a replacement for Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in disgrace–announced he wouldn’t seek re-election after the publication of aNew York Times report detailing how Paterson’s office, including staff members, the governor’s state police detail and Paterson himself, pressured a woman to drop domestic violence charges against his top aide David Johnson.

Then there’s Rep. Eric Massa, another New York Democrat, who announced his retirement last week, citing “health” reasons–but as it turns out, he’s being investigated by the House Ethics Committee, too, for allegedly making inappropriate sexual comments to a male staffer.

Political scandals are hardly surprising in a political system that rewards those who do the bidding of the wealthy and powerful–and who think they’re above the law. Such scandals are an indication of the politicians’ arrogance, and the massive disconnect of those who run our political system from the rest of us.

But there’s a deeper scandal here–one that the media won’t pay attention to. The scandal is that a political party that controls the White House and Congress with the largest majority in decades could fail to deliver on any of the issues that working people need.

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FROM HEALTH care “reform” that has devolved into a blatant giveaway to the insurance industry, to a “peace plan” that involves a dramatic escalation of the war in Afghanistan, to defending the biggest financial giveaway in history to the very banks and corporations that caused the financial meltdown of 2008, the idea that the Democrats could still claim to represent the interests of working people seems a farce. The hope for change that millions of people felt in the run-up to Barack Obama’s election is vanishing.

Now, Democrats are seeing their fortunes turn as growing numbers of people grow disenchanted with a party that was never committed to challenging the system in the first place.

Certainly, the Republicans have no coherent alternative. But they don’t have to. They can criticize Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package as ineffective–which is true–and then propose budget cuts that would make the suffering of working people much worse.

After decades of trying to slash Medicare, the Republicans are getting away with posing as its defenders because Obama’s health care plan would take $500 billion away from the program. And although the Republicans are shills for the big banks, they can score points by painting Obama as being too cozy with Wall Street–because he is.

If some Republicans are able to pursue this strategy by casting themselves as “outsiders,” it’s only because the Democrats have given them the opening. People are rightly frustrated and angered at the failure of the Democrats to deliver–and that leaves the political initiative open to the Republicans to pass themselves off as caring about working people.

Take, for example, the news that Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd may be in the process of de-fanging even the limited financial system reforms proposed by Democrats following the Wall Street meltdown.

In his role as the chair of the Senate Banking Committee, Dodd is reportedly attempting to put a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency under the direction of the Federal Reserve–which would be like letting the foxes guard the henhouse. As Zach Carter wrote in the Nation, Dodd is also attempting “to block the new agency from enforcing the rules it writes, leaving enforcement up to the same regulators who ignored rampant predation and outright fraud throughout the housing bubble.”

Dodd is set to retire at the end of this legislative session, so he no longer has to pretend to have the interests of working people at heart. Instead, he can act openly on behalf of his largest campaign donors–securities and investment firms, law firms and the insurance industry.

Actions like these are leading millions of people to grow cynical again about the motives of Washington–after the brief interlude when the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama created a climate of hope and enthusiasm that gave the Democrats their biggest majority in more than a generation.

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THEY’RE ALSO another sign that the oft-repeated claim that the U.S. is the “world’s greatest democracy” is a fraud.

Those who get heard in the halls of Congress aren’t the ordinary people whose unemployment benefits are running out, but rich loudmouths like Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, who got the bulk of his campaign money in the past five years from the insurance industry, health professional lobbying groups, and securities and investments groups.

Bunning recently used a filibuster to hold up a $10 billion bill designed to pay for, among other things, extended unemployment benefits and Medicare payments to doctors. Bunning claimed that he was taking a principled stand against spending. “Enough,” the red-faced Republican yelled on the floor of the Senate. Until he finally relented, Bunning’s filibuster threatened jobless benefits for millions.

And who did Bunning get support from but the newest member of the Senate and the GOP’s new golden boy, Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown. “The perception in Massachusetts and other parts of the country is that Washington is broken,” Brown told the Washington Post. “And if it takes one guy to get up and make a stand…I think that speaks for itself.”

So much for Brown’s ordinary-guy-in-a-truck act.

For an even clearer illustration of what the Republicans think about ordinary people, consider the comments of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who praised Bunning as “brave,” and went on to say that unemployment benefits actually keep “people from going and finding jobs.”

So if you’re out of work, Tom DeLay thinks it’s your own fault for being too lazy to find a job. Maybe he didn’t get the memo that says that Republicans are supposed to be embracing “populism” to turn around their discredited party’s fortunes.

DeLay, of course, set the pace for scandal in Washington several years ago, when Texas prosecutors charged him with running a vast, crooked campaign finance scheme. Now, Rangel, one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, has been caught sunning himself in the Caribbean on the corporate dime.

But the truth is that Jim Bunning and Chris Dodd and pretty much every other Washington politician take bribes as well–just in their legal form as campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists.

For all the mainstream media moaning about how “Washington doesn’t work,” they never ask why someone like Bunning–or any politician–should be able to hold up the entire legislative process with a filibuster or other procedural red tape. Or why senators from states with a fraction of the population of the country’s biggest cities should have equal say about critical legislation.

The problem isn’t that Washington is “dysfunctional,” but that it’s designed, by its nature, to put the brakes on any proposals to improve the system for working people. In that sense, the U.S. political system works perfectly well–for the rich and powerful.


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