Naked Capitalism on Government Corruption

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The Augean Stables – How Corruption Has Amended the Constitution

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. This piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.
Not something you don’t already know if you’re a regular reader of these pages, but it’s becoming more and more mainstream to deliver a radical* analysis of government in the U.S. That’s why I found the following so interesting — the source is former U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Gary Hart. And believe me, this is a radical analysis.

But first, two definitions. The Augean Stables is a reference to the Fifth Labor of Hercules, one of the Twelve (click to read the context). The task was to clean the king’s stables, which housed 1,000 cattle and which hadn’t been cleaned in 30 years, the life of the man who owned it. Cleaned of what? Surely you know:

The fifth Labour of Heracles (Hercules in Latin) was to clean the Augean (/ɔːˈən/) stables. Eurystheus [the king assigning the tasks to Hercules] intended this assignment both as humiliating (rather than impressive, like the previous labours) and as impossible, since the livestock were divinely healthy (immortal) and therefore produced an enormous quantity of dung (ἡ ὄνθος). These stables had not been cleaned in over 30 years, and over 1,000 cattle lived there. However, Heracles succeeded by rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus to wash out the filth.

The second definition — corruption. Most think of corruption as an outcome that’s perverted for the sake of money. Hart, correctly, says, Not so:

From Plato and Aristotle forward, corruption was meant to describe actions and decisions that put a narrow, special, or personal interest ahead of the interest of the public or commonwealth. Corruption did not have to stoop to money under the table, vote buying, or even renting out the Lincoln bedroom. In the governing of a republic, corruption was self-interest placed above the interest of all—the public interest.

Corruption is “self-interest placed above the interest of all,” or in some cases, one’s legal or contractual obligation. Thus, for example, some college football referees and refereeing groups are obviously corrupt. When Conference A plays Conference B using Conference B’s referees, and year after year the bad calls go Conference B’s way, especially with the game on the line, the referees are corrupt.

Are they betraying their obligation for money? No, likely not. Are they betraying their obligation in order to satisfy animus against Conference A, or to make sure the “home teams” win? That’s an obvious explanation, and by this definition (and mine), that’s corrupt.

Or take another situation. By this definition, the Supreme Court since at least 2000 and likely before has acted corruptly, if the definition is “self-interest placed above the interest of all.” No legal analysis of Bush v. Gore passes the “upholds the interest of all” test — the Republicans on the Court simply put a Republican (the home team candidate) in the White House because they could. Nor do the major decisions around money and corporate rights, like Citizens United or even Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 Burger Court decision that lifted restrictions on campaign contributions, and its follow-up, First National Bank of Boston vs. Bellotti, whose majority opinion was authored by Lewis Powell, of the infamous Powell memo.

By this definition — perverting an outcome to benefit a group in which one has a personal interest — the Supreme Court acted corruptly in the cases above. Likely corrupt in Buckley, Citizens United, and First National Bank of Boston. Certainly corrupt in Bush v. Gore, where Republican justices favored a Republican candidate for president over a Democratic one on no defensible grounds. They weren’t metaphorically “corrupt,” with the quotes. They were corrupt by definition.

Gary Hart on the Systemic Corruption of the U.S. Government

Hart’s piece is an interesting Time magazine essay, and also a long section from his new book, The Republic of Conscience (I don’t support Amazon, so no Amazon link). I don’t want to quote a ton of it, since its main argument is likely familiar to you. But he makes a systemic point in a way that seems original; that is, he puts pieces together to make a bigger whole than most of us were aware of. For example, it’s likely that the “army of lobbyists” we all hate aren’t a perversion of government — they are government.

A few notable sections (all emphasis mine):

Gary Hart: America’s Founding Principles Are in Danger of Corruption

Welcome to the age of vanity politics and campaigns-for-hire. What would our founders make of this nightmare?

Four qualities have distinguished republican government from ancient Athens forward: the sovereignty of the people; a sense of the common good; government dedicated to the commonwealth; and resistance to corruption. Measured against the standards established for republics from ancient times, the American Republic is massively corrupt.

From Plato and Aristotle forward, corruption was meant to describe actions and decisions that put a narrow, special, or personal interest ahead of the interest of the public or commonwealth. Corruption did not have to stoop to money under the table, vote buying, or even renting out the Lincoln bedroom. In the governing of a republic, corruption was self-interest placed above the interest of all—the public interest.

By that standard, can anyone seriously doubt that our republic, our government, is corrupt? There have been Teapot Domes and financial scandals of one kind or another throughout our nation’s history. There has never been a time, however, when the government of the United States was so perversely and systematically dedicated to special interests, earmarks, side deals, log-rolling, vote-trading, and sweetheart deals of one kind or another.

What brought us to this? A sinister system combining staggering campaign costs, political contributions, political action committees, special interest payments for access, and, most of all, the rise of the lobbying class.

Worst of all, the army of lobbyists that started relatively small in the mid-twentieth century has now grown to big battalions of law firms and lobbying firms of the right, left, and an amalgam of both. And that gargantuan, if not reptilian, industry now takes on board former members of the House and the Senate and their personal and committee staffs. And they are all getting fabulously rich.

Gargantuan numbers of lobbyists with gargantuan amounts of money. There’s a point where corruption of government on that scale systemically changes government itself.

The “Big Three” Lobbying Conglomerates Are a “Fourth Branch of Government”

For Hart, the movement of office-holders and their staffs between lobbying firms and government is not a “revolving door” to government; that revolving door is government. Hart makes his point by looking at the lobbying firm WPP, the largest of three giant lobbying conglomerates. WPP isn’t just a lobbying firm, it’s an international conglomerate of firms that wields enormous power and wealth.

Consider — WPP has been eating up lobbying firms the way Macy’s, Inc. eats department stores or Darden eats restaurant chains. At some point, you simply own the business you’re in, and the size of your operation changes the nature of the game itself.

Hart on how lobbying at this scale changes our government:

[T]he largest [lobbying “predator” (his term)] by far is WPP (originally called Wire and Plastic Products; is there a metaphor here?), which has its headquarters in London and more than 150,000 employees in 2,500 offices spread around 107 countries. It, together with one or two conglomerating competitors, represents a fourth branch of government, vacuuming up former senators and House members and their spouses and families, key committee staff, former senior administration officials of both parties and several administrations, and ambassadors, diplomats, and retired senior military officers.

WPP has swallowed giant public relations, advertising, and lobbying outfits such as Hill & Knowlton and BursonMarsteller, along with dozens of smaller members of the highly lucrative special interest and influence-manipulation world. Close behind WPP is the Orwellian-named Omnicom Group and another converger vaguely called the Interpublic Group of Companies. According to Mr. Edsall, WPP had billings last year of $72.3 billion, larger than the budgets of quite a number of countries.

With a budget so astronomical, think how much good WPP can do in the campaign finance arena, especially since the Citizens United decision. The possibilities are almost limitless. Why pay for a senator or congresswoman here or there when you can buy an entire committee? Think of the banks that can be bailed out, the range of elaborate weapons systems that can be sold to the government, the protection from congressional scrutiny that can be paid for, the economic policies that can be manipulated.

The lobbying business is no longer about votes up or down on particular measures that may emerge in Congress or policies made in the White House. It is about setting agendas, deciding what should and should not be brought up for hearings and legislation. We have gone way beyond mere vote buying now. The converging Influence World represents nothing less than an unofficial but enormously powerful fourth branch of government.

To whom is this branch of government accountable? Who sets the agenda for its rising army of influence marketers? How easy will it be to not only go from office to a lucrative lobbying job but, more important, from lucrative lobbying job to holding office?

When one lobbying firm has billings of nearly $75 billion, you can “buy committees,” not just individual votes; and you can “set agendas” rather than just pass laws.

Now consider that “revolving door” again. Is that a door out of government and back into it, or is it a door into another branch of government, one where policy decisions also get made?

Does an International Lobbying Firm Serve One Nation’s Interest or Many?

And a final question: If the lobbying firm is international, with international clients and governmental “targets,” are its interests “American” in any way? If not, how compromised are those who take its money?

Where are its [WPP’s] loyalties if it is manipulating and influencing governments around the world? Other than as a trough of money of gigantic proportions, how does it view the government of the United States?

Why would not WPP act to modify the laws of one country to serve the interests of clients in another? And I’ll ask again, are those who take its money compromised by the international goals of these mega-firms?

“Purchasing” Candidates and Office-Holders — Even Former Senators Are Saying It

Just as “corruption” is not a metaphor when it comes to decisions like Bush v. Gore, “buying” and “sponsoring” candidates and office-holders — the way soap is bought and race cars are sponsored — is not a metaphor, at least according to Hart:

The advent of legalized corruption launched by the Supreme Court empowers the superrich to fund their own presidential and congressional campaigns as pet projects, to foster pet policies, and to represent pet political enclaves. You have a billion, or even several hundred million, then purchase a candidate from the endless reserve bench of minor politicians and make him or her a star, a mouthpiece for any cause or purpose however questionable, and that candidate will mouth your script in endless political debates and through as many television spots as you are willing to pay for. All legal now. …

The five prevailing Supreme Court justices, holding that a legal entity called a corporation has First Amendment rights of free speech, might at least have required the bought-and-paid-for candidates to wear sponsor labels on their suits as stock-car drivers do. Though, for the time being, sponsored candidates will not be openly promoted by Exxon-Mobil or the Stardust Resort and Casino but by phony “committees for good government” smokescreens.

I think he’s literally correct. In the old days, it didn’t take much money to wholly own a back-bench Congress person from coal country, say, and one coal company, if big enough, could do it. But the major office-holders had to be funded by competing interests. Now you can tag several  presidential candidates, at least on the Republican side, with the single name of their “benefactor.”

For example:

  • Marco Rubio — Sponsored by Norman Braman & (he hopes) Sheldon Adelson
  • Scott Walker — Sponsored by the Koch Brothers
  • Ted Cruz — Sponsored by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer
  • Rick Santorum — Sponsored by Foster Friess
  • Rand Paul — Sponsored by [this slot available]

And so on. Joe Biden’s been called the “Senator from MBNA,” and Chuck Schumer the “Senator from Wall Street.” Seems right. In cases of such complete “sponsorship” I agree that wearing of badges should be required. Partial sponsorship could be handled like NASCAR jackets.

boehner_sponsors_ACFB13

But this treats a serious problem too lightly. Remember, I said this was a radical analysis. In fact, by this practice we’re actually amending the Constitution — not the one as written; the one as practiced.

The Other Way to Amend the Constitution

All constitutions and all systems of laws are amended in two ways, by formal agreement (legal process) and by informal agreement. In England, the second ways is in fact the primary way their “constitution” is amended.

In the U.S., if both parties enforce a law in the same way, even though that way deviates from the way the law is written, the law is amended until forced back to its original form in practice. Thus:

▪ We have, by bipartisan agreement, revoked the Fourth Amendment. Neither party enforces it, so it’s gone. Do you think you’ll see it enforced in your lifetime? It’s possible. Is that likely, do you think, without another radical change?

▪ We have changed the “rule of law” to add a “circle of immunity” amendment. It started with Nixon — the circle of “who cannot be prosecuted” included one person, the president. That was granted him by Gerald Ford’s pardon with no objection from Congress and confirmed by Obama’s refusal to indict Bush II for violating laws against torture. (Can you see Obama being indicted by anyone for extrajudicial murder, assassination really, of Americans, some mere propagandists and some completely innocent?)

Under Reagan–Bush I that circle expanded to include their top cabinet officers, like Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger. Under Bush II–Obama it includes all money-center bankers and former senators (and outright crooks) like Jon Corzine.

▪ Regarding that parenthetical comment about Obama and his drone kills above, we’ve now amended the trial-by-jury section of the Sixth Amendment to allow executive assassination, death by executive fiat. It just awaits a Republican president to confirm it by following suit, but Congress has already approved.

And so on. Now we can add one more:

▪ The mega-lobbying firms, with their combined more-than-$100 billion annual budget, are a fourth branch of government. Policy is set in these firms and passed to Congress and the executive branch to “discuss.” Once discussed and passed, those who passed these policies then return to the firms to set more policy — and receive what’s often the biggest payoff of their lifetime.

Was TPP drafted first in these mega-firms before being negotiated between nations? There aren’t many other ways to convene 600 lobbyists (pdf).

Cleaning the Augean Stables

Back to Hart’s essay and where we started, with the Augean Stables. The way out of this mess, if Greek myth is any indicator, is not incremental. You can’t shovel your way out. Remember, that’s a 1,000-cattle stable, and in our case a literal army of lobbyists. With a mere shovel, we’d be buried to our necks before the fourth toss of filth out the window.

How did Hercules clean his stable? He diverted a river and ran the whole mess out to sea in one pass. There’s a word for that equivalent in government life — radical change, and it comes in several forms.

I recommend the peaceful kind, like backing this guy for president. Click to support; you can adjust the split at the link.

*Did you know that “radical” means “going to the root or source”?

Radically yours,

GP

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