Jack Abramoff on Gingrich’s ‘history’ gig and how the allure of lobbying jobs corrupts Congressional staffers

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Cenk talks to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff about his new book, “Capitol Punishment,” Newt Gingrich’s $1.6 million gig as a historical adviser, and how the allure of lobbying job taints work being done on the Hill. “As soon as you speak to a chief of staff or a staff member up there and say, look, I’d like you to join me when you’re done with your government service, come on over after a couple of years — from that minute on, that person is thinking about where she’s gonna go or he’s gonna go in two years,” Abramoff says. “They’re not thinking about where they work now. And everything they do is going to be for the benefit of that lobbyist.”

 

Weekly Audit: Don’t Let Citizens United Wreck Our Economy

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

In a landmark decision last week, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could spend unlimited funds to influence American elections, overturning a century of legal precedent. The Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC undermines the integrity of the U.S. government, as President Barack Obama emphasized at his State of the Union address. But the decision also deals a damaging blow to the U.S. economy by encouraging lawmakers to write economic rules that benefit specific companies at the expense of everyone else.

The editors of The Nation lay out the High Court’s hubris in no uncertain terms:

The Citizens United campaign finance decision by Chief Justice John Roberts and a Supreme Court majority of conservative judicial activists is a dramatic assault on American democracy, overturning more than a century of precedent in order to give corporations the ultimate authority over elections and governing. This decision tips the balance against active citizenship and the rule of law by making it possible for the nation’s most powerful economic interests to manipulate not just individual politicians and electoral contests but political discourse itself.

Citizens United and the financial crisis

How does this ruling have any bearing on the economy? Markets are not simply the product of random interactions between consumers and producers. Even under the most radical, laissez-faire economic theories, markets are defined, coordinated and policed by the government. For the economy to function at all, we need the government to define what constitutes fair play.

But over the past few decades, we’ve watched Congress and the executive branch rewrite those rules of the game under heavy corporate influence, creating artificial profits for a set of favored companies with very bad consequences for the broader economy.

The U.S. banking industry serves as a prime example. Since the 1980s, banks have been spending like crazy in all kinds of elections, and getting just about anything they want in return. I interviewed Harvard University Law Professor and TARP Oversight Panel Chair Elizabeth Warren for AlterNet, and she presented a concise but unsettling economic history of consumer protection law:

Thirty years ago we had laws that put some basic fairness into the consumer credit market. Over time, the large financial institutions captured the regulators who were supposed to be the cops on the beat to enforce those laws. They also pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Washington to make sure that no new cops were put on the beat. Without good laws, the industry started selling ever-more-deceptive products, and their friendly regulators looked the other way.

The bank lobby and the AIG bailout

In Mother Jones, Corbin Hiar reveals how even a bank that engineered a massive tax fraud scheme was able to benefit from the AIG bailout. Major financial institutions convinced Congress to block any regulation of credit default swaps (CDS) all the way back in 2000. CDS contracts were essentially insurance on the value of financial assets—if the assets lost value, banks would still get paid as if they were highly profitable.

CDS insurance encouraged banks to engage in risky mortgage lending, and allowed them to book huge profits on those risky mortgages during the housing boom, even though many of those mortgages were doomed from the get-go. AIG binged so heavily on CDS that the company was on the brink of bankruptcy in the fall of 2008. But an AIG bankruptcy would have hammered the major banks who served as AIG’s betting partners, most notably Goldman Sachs. Those banks would have received just pennies on the dollar from a bankrupt AIG. But under the bailout, the New York Federal Reserve paid the banks off at full value, without demanding any concessions whatsoever.

“The credit crunch was an existential threat to every over-leveraged big bank. What’s most shocking about the AIG bailout … is that these endangered banks were able to extract such a sweet deal from the government,” Hiar writes. “The banks were paid the full value of all the CDS contracts they had made with AIG—including those mortgage-backed securities they had bought when it was clear the subprime market was collapsing.”

The only AIG counterparty to even consider taking CDS losses was Swiss banking giant UBS, which was negotiating a separate settlement with the U.S. government over a massive tax evasion scheme. But even the tax fraudsters at UBS ultimately received full payment on their CDS exposure, and it now appears that the Swiss bank will be able to protect its wealthy tax-evading clients.

With the AIG bailout, the corporate takeover came full-circle. The banks purchased radical deregulation in Congress, and when the deregulated banks destroyed themselves, the government paid out billions to save them. The rest of the economy was ravaged by predatory lending, and taxpayers, not bankers, footed the bill for bank losses.

Redefining corruption

So the Citizens United decision will not introduce corporate influence in elections. Instead, it takes an uneven playing field and tilts it further in the favor of corporate executives. The Roberts court didn’t just open the floodgates for corporate cash in U.S. elections and call it a day. It also explicitly redefined “corruption” to give corporations—and anyone else—greater leeway to financially curry favor with politicians. Heather K. Gerken details the new definition for The American Prospect:

The most important line in the decision … was this one: “ingratiation and access … are not corruption.” For many years, the Court had gradually expanded the corruption rationale to extend beyond quid pro quo corruption (donor dollars for legislative votes). It had licensed Congress to regulate even when the threat was simply that large donors had better access to politicians or that politicians had become “too compliant with the[ir] wishes.” Indeed, at times the Court went so far as to say that even the mere appearance of “undue influence” or the public’s “cynical assumption that large donors call the tune” was enough to justify regulation. “Ingratiation and access,” in other words, were corruption as far as the Court was concerned.

Most of us would consider the key lawmakers ensnared in the Jack Abramoff scandal as fundamentally corrupt—Abramoff flew former Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas to Scotland for golfing vacations in an effort to win greater leverage over DeLay’s legislative agenda. The court’s ruling claims that this kind of activity is not corrupt, and bars Congress from passing any laws to counteract it. As filmmaker Alex Gibney emphasizes in an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, the court has essentially taken Tom DeLay’s corporatist philosophy and made it a piece of constitutional law.

“Tom DeLay’s view is, we spend more money on potato chips than we do on political campaigns. His view would be, let the money rush down like great waters,,” Gibney says. “I think the court was channeling Tom DeLay when they issued their recent decision.”

Why citizens need to speak out now

So what can we do about this? As GRITtv’s Laura Flanders discusses in a roundtable discussion with several progressive leaders, there will be a long fight for a Constitutional Amendment to ban corporate influence in politics. Until then, as progressive strategist Mike Lux explains, citizens will have to take an aggressive stance against Corporate America as shareholders. Corporate power is exercised by a handful of executives, but the resources that support that power come from ordinary Americans who own stock in those companies, primarily through retirement plans. By demanding that the giant firms we own do not highjack our democracy with lobbying, we can limit some of the damage from the court’s recent decision.

If you liked the bank bailouts, then there’s plenty for you to love about the Citizens United decision. If you didn’t, then it’s time to speak up.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

NYT: McCain Is A Compulsive Gambler (literally)

We all know that John McCain is running his campaign like a compulsive gambler. But it turns out that he suffers from an actual gambling addiction.

NYT:

For much of his adult life, Mr. McCain has gambled as often as once a month, friends and associates said, traveling to Las Vegas for weekend betting marathons. Former senior campaign officials said they worried about Mr. McCain's patronage of casinos, given the power he wields over the industry.

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McCain and Palin are distractions. The real bad guys are still at work.

    In this time of Palin diaries and convention rhetoric,  I have been holding back writing this diary for the right moment.  Everyone seems to be so concerned about what Sarah Palin has done in the past that they fail to realize that she really has no effect unless she gets elected.  The people who got our country into the position that it is in are still at work, part of them trying to get McCain elected, and part of them still fleecing our society for every penny they can.  I decided to write a diary to refocus on those people and give a little perspective on what is really going on right now besides the election.

   In every endeavor, in every organization, there are "planning" people and "action" people.  In my business, the Engineering people are the planners, and the Operations people are the action people.  The normal dynamic is that engineers are horrible operators, and vice-versa.  Upon looking at the Bush Administration, I noticed a similar dynamic and I found that most people have missed the clear definition of who the engineers are and who the operators are.

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McCain Steaming Ahead with Abramoff-Linked Fundraiser

Over the weekend I noted the news that John MCCain was the willing recipient of an upcoming fundraiser to be held by Ralph Reed, who was once one of Jack Abramoff's closest friends and allies in politics. The establishment press has by and large given McCain a pass on the issue, but at least a few newspapers continue to keep track of the story. Here's The Hill's Susan Crabtree writing under the headline, "McCain ignoring calls to cancel controversial fundraiser":

Republican presidential candidate John McCain so far is ignoring calls from several watchdog groups to cancel an Atlanta fundraiser promoted by Ralph Reed, a longtime friend and business partner of imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Public Citizen, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and Campaign Money Watch are urging the Arizona senator to cancel plans for the Aug. 18 fundraiser at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Atlanta and remove Reed from McCain's Victory 2008 Team.

Reed lost his 2006 campaign for Georgia lieutenant governor in large part because of details about his relationship with Abramoff -- much of the information uncovered by McCain's Indian Affairs Committee investigation into the wide-ranging lobbying corruption scandal.

The Senate probe discovered $4 million in payments Reed accepted to run a bogus anti-casino campaign aimed at reducing gambling competition. An Indian tribe with a competing casino made payments to Reed, which according to the Senate investigation's final report, were "passed through" Abramoff's firm, Preston, Gates, Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, and another organization, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.

The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC's First Read, and others are also watching this story, but all of them seem to miss the broader point. The frame in which most of the Beltway press is viewing this story is of the shock -- shock! -- that McCain would be willing to accept money from Reed after having gallantly led an investigation into Reed's relationship with Abramoff.

However, to anyone who has taken a serious look at McCain's career -- Keating 5 and all -- this story comes as no surprise. McCain has a long and rich history of demagoguing for the press on reform issues, only to play games on campaign finance himself. It's hard to think of another previous presidential campaign having been so infested with lobbyists, for instance. McCain's gamesmanship of the public financing program, opting in before unilaterally opting out, comes to mind as well. No, this is no aberration -- it's a clear pattern of behavior by McCain, playing the establishment media (who for some reason continue to enjoy being duped by McCain time and time again) to cynically convince the American people that he is a reformer when in fact he is one of the worst examples of special interest, lobbyist-driven Beltway politics around. You'd figure that at some point reporters would figure this game out, but perhaps that's too much to ask for.

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