Greasing the Capitol’s Locked Gears

Even the hyper-partisan Newt Gingrich has chastised his fellow Republicans for endless negativity and lack of positive ideas. Still, as the wheels of government grind to a standstill, business lobbyists continue to grease them with lots of money, notes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

“I miss Congress like an abscessed tooth.” That’s what former Rep. Steven LaTourette told National Journal the other day. He was quoted in an article that asked the question, “Is Congress Simply No Fun Anymore?” No, it isn’t.

Not that it was ever a vacation trip to Busch Gardens (on his honeymoon, an ex-in-law of mine spent a day at that European-themed park in Virginia and came home convinced he’d actually been to six countries). And certainly no one truly misses the 19th Century days when members of Congress thrashed other members with canes (although I can imagine the reality show any day now on The Learning Channel).

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

But seriously. “Although partisanship is an enduring part of American politics, the type of hyper-partisanship we see now – I can’t find a precedent for it in the past 100 years.” So sayeth Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and co-founder of No Labels, which has herded 82 Democratic and Republican lawmakers into a “Problem Solvers Coalition.” Boy, is that ever the triumph of hope over experience.

“If your desire is to get something done, then you’re going to be very frustrated,” Galston explained to National Journal. Those members “who came to Washington to wage ideological war on what they see as a bipartisan status quo, if you ask them, they will say that gumming up the works is not part of the problem, it’s part of the solution. They’re actually happy when legislation doesn’t pass, unless it’s the kind of legislation that they approve of.”

Like passing umpteen useless resolutions to kill Obamacare while Detroit dies, bridges crumble and starving kids can’t get food assistance. Uselessness to the point where even former House Speaker Newt “Let’s Build a Moonbase” Gingrich says most Republican lawmakers have “zero answer” for what they’d do instead of Obamacare: “If we’re going to take on the fight with Obamacare, we have to be able to explain to people what we would do to make your life better.”

He was speaking at the Republican National Committee meeting in Boston. “We are caught up right now in a culture — and you see it every single day,” he said, “where as long as we are negative and as long as we are vicious and as long as we can tear down our opponent, we don’t have to learn anything.”

Okay, GOP, what have you done with the real Newt? But despite what you’ve heard, the spirit of bipartisanship in Washington is not dead. Simply look past the vitriol, bombast and gridlock, then listen for the ka-ching of the nearest cash register, made flesh by friendly lobbyists and special interests. Their fat wallets and deep pockets bring together Democrats and Republicans like no one else in a collegial spirit of kumbaya as they dive for dollars in exchange for their votes and influence.

Just the other day, The New York Times reported that one of the plushest places at the table in the Capitol is a seat on the House Financial Services Committee, the one that allegedly regulates the banks and Wall Street. In the first half of this year, political action committees – “set up by lobbying firms, unions, corporations and other groups trying to push their agenda in Congress” – have given more money to its members – nearly $9.5 million – than any other committee.

So many members are clamoring for a seat at the trough that extra chairs had to be installed in the committee room. Freshmen members from both parties, wide-eyed and ripe for the picking, are particular targets for the money machine. One lobbyist told Times reporter Eric Lipton, “It is almost like investing in a first-round draft pick for the N.B.A. or N.F.L. There is potential there. So we make an investment, and we are hopeful that investment produces a return.”

As Washington journalist Mark Leibovich (an upcoming Moyers & Company guest) writes in his bestseller, This Town, “Getting rich has become the great bipartisan ideal: ‘No Democrats and Republicans in Washington anymore,’ goes the maxim, ‘only millionaires.’ The ultimate Green party. You still hear the term ‘public service’ thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that self-service is now the real insider play.”

Having fun yet? Retiring lawmakers may rightfully be fed up with the institution of Congress but that hasn’t stopped many of them from using their experience there as a stepping stone to the home version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

Many reporters have cited last year’s article in The Atlantic, noting that in 1974, “3 percent of retiring Congressmen became lobbyists. Now it’s 50 percent of Senators, 42 percent of House members.”

An Aug. 11 USA Today article by Fredreka Schouten references a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics: “30 House members and senators who left office during the last Congress now work for lobbying firms or for interests that lobby the federal government. They account for nearly two-thirds of the former lawmakers from the 112th Congress that the center has identified as having new jobs.”

Ronald Reagan’s image of Washington as a shining city on a hill, rarely seen these days except at moments of pomp and pageantry, has succumbed to the reality of down and dirty, lucrative deal making. The yeas and nays of Congress yield not to the voice of the people but to the urgent, seductive whisper of the dollar.

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at the public policy and analysis group Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public television series, Moyers & Company. To comment or for more information, go to www.BillMoyers.com.

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2 comments on “Greasing the Capitol’s Locked Gears

  1. Robert Schwartz on said:

    It is curious, though, that Mr. Winship quotes the NY Times:

    “set up by lobbying firms, unions, corporations and other groups trying to push their agenda in Congress” and doesn’t take that apart.

    So I will. “Lobbying firms” is a catch-phrase that can encompass the terms that follow, and “unions” immediately follows before “corporations.” “And other groups,” would be NGOs and other advocacy organizations.

    It would be useful here to envision a pie chart. If we were to slice the pie into 10 slices, the whole pie representing the total budgeting of the “lobbying firms,” how many of those slices represent funding from “unions,” “other groups,” and “corporations”?

  2. F. G. Sanford on said:

    What’s really happened here is the removal of intellectual prowess from public discourse. And, it has been accomplished by substituting ideological constructs for rational interpretations. As these ideological constructs are conceptual by nature, they are always most effectively manipulated by intellectuals who effectively out-gun their challenged opponents on the rhetorical right. Neoconservatives used to be liberals. That was before they decided that, while secular humanism might be the rising tide that would lift all boats, it didn’t help much where foreign policy intersected with emotional and personal convictions. Rather than adhere to the rational foundations of statesmanship based on the general welfare and the national interest, they betrayed their better judgement to embrace dogmatism, sloganeering and narrow minded self-interests. Sinking to the same level, they insured that their own agenda would be carried along on the tide of fundamentalist Christian lunacy.

    I’m sure it leaves a bad taste in their mouths. Diane Feinstein can’t possibly be proud of standing on the same side of issues with race bating, Bible thumping right-to lifers, but she’s stuck in the hypocrisy trap with all the other Neocons who sold out to get their way on a few irrational issues. Instead of a duel of wits with unarmed men, they chose to wrestle with pigs in the mud. The pigs like it. And now, it’s the only game in town. As the right gradually morphed into an entity that is less and less rational, it has also lost some of its loyalty to causes once championed by the Neocons. Non-intervention and isolationism, whether we call it that or not, is becoming more attractive to them.

    As our foreign policy continues to devolve into chaotic indecision, there are fewer cherries to pick from the right wing swamp of strange fruit. The Neocons abandoned the liberal causes their ancestors once championed. They bought the farm, but hate the pigs. And they forgot to plant the potatoes. Events in Egypt resemble no recent historical anecdote so much as Hitler’s “Machtergreifung” in 1933. Appointed Chancellor by von Hindenberg, whose advisors feared civil war waged by Hitler’s mercenary army, the “gleichschaltung” included imprisonment of political opponents and eventually culminated in the “Blood Purge” of 1934. von Hindenberg casually noted, “When history is made, some blood must be spilled”. We hear the same moral bankruptcy from Neocons who insist that Al-Sissi has preserved a path to democratic reform. Fat chance.