As Congress rushes to wrap up business before the Christmas holidays, it traditionally dangles pricy ornaments favors to rich donors on an omnibus bill called a “Christmas tree,” one activity that has survived the current legislative dysfunction, writes Michael Winship.
By Michael Winship
I was planning to write a festive poem to Congress as they approach their merry holiday recess but couldn’t come up with a rhyme for “dysfunctional.”
Writing in Monday’s Washington Post, Greg Sargent noted that all that inertia on Capitol Hill has been caused “less by a roughly equivalent failure by both major parties to make the incremental concessions needed to reach common ground, and more by a searing intra-GOP argument over whether the Republican Party should make such concessions to reach the common ground that has always been sitting right there in plain sight.”
Citing Ryan Lizza’s superb analysis of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus in The New Yorker this week, Sargent writes that the radical caucus members believe, “Republicans lose ground when they govern along with Democrats, because achieving bipartisan governing compromise inherently represents capitulation to Dems, in the sense that when government functions, it affirms the Dem vision.”
It’s really a profound pity, tragic, in fact, and deadly dangerous to democracy. In an alternative universe, I could see senators and House members racing home to spend holiday time with friends and family, drinking hot cocoa with peppermint sticks, making snow angels and redistributing their campaign contributions to the poor.
Instead, they will spend much of the off time plotting on behalf of or against the lunacy of the right (refueled each day by Fox, talk radio and a hyperventilating Trump, Cruz, Carson and Rubio) while hitting up donors and listening to their requests for all the favors expected in return. Even Santa couldn’t keep track of their list.
For this is the one thing on which both Democrats and Republicans agree: in this time of good tidings when you care enough to give the very best, a little something tucked away in legislation in exchange for campaign largesse is, as my Texas mother used to say, better than black-eyed peas on New Year’s.
Look, for example, at Michigan Republican Congressman Fred Upton and Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, chairs, respectively, of the House and Senate energy committees. For them, Christmas came a little early this year.
At International Business Times last month, David Sirota and Andrew Perez reported that during the summer Upton and Murkowski “launched a so-called joint fundraising committee, a campaign war chest that would accept donations from a range of contributors, with the proceeds divided between the two lawmakers.” It happened to coincide with the fossil fuel industry’s hope for “a measure limiting the authority of local communities to slow the construction of pipelines because of environmental concerns.
“Executives at one of the nation’s largest natural gas pipeline companies soon deposited more than $80,750 into the joint fund’s coffers. The very next day, Upton delivered on the industry’s aspirations: He rushed a bill through his legislative panel that would not only streamline the approval process for new pipelines but also empower federal officials to impose tight deadlines on state and local governments seeking to review their potential environmental impacts.”
The company in question is Dallas-based Energy Transfer, which runs 71,000 miles of pipeline, a Louisiana export terminal and recently announced a merger with the Williams Companies, a combination that “would create one of the world’s largest energy companies.”
This isn’t the only natural gas and oil legislation Upton and his pal Murkowski have helped ease through their committees. So it’s probably not for nothing that over the course of his congressional career, Upton has received $789,350 from the oil and gas industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Since 1989, Murkowski has pulled in $812,494.
Larry Noble of the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center told Sirota and Perez, “Raising money from an industry at the same time a bill is being considered raises all sorts of appearance issues. There have been real ethics problems with that, because the obvious implication is that the money is being given to help you decide how to vote on a bill.”
Then there’s Howard Milstein, chairman of New York’s Emigrant Savings Bank. Three and a half years ago, Bill Moyers and I wrote about how during the financial meltdown the bank “borrowed money that by the end of 2009 raised its worth beyond $15 billion. This triggered a Dodd-Frank provision requiring the bank to liquidate some of its assets.”
What did Chairman Milstein do? He called a friendly congressman. Then-New York Republican Rep. Michael Grimm, “with the bipartisan backing of members of the House Financial Services Committee, including Democratic ranking member Barney Frank (as in Dodd-Frank), introduced a one-sentence bill, that’s right, one sentence, moving the cutoff date to March 31, 2010, when the bank’s assets had slipped back under $15 billion.” That would create a savings for Emigrant of $300 million in capital.
We noted then that Grimm had received a generous contribution to his re-election campaign from Millstein, as did New York Democratic Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Carolyn McCarthy and Gregory Meeks, all of whom co-sponsored Grimm’s legislation.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a quorum. The media spotlight seemed to scare away support and then Michael Grimm was forced to resign after pleading guilty to felony tax fraud. His bill blew off the congressional porch.
No worries, though. The tenacious Millstein and his faithful lobbyists in their K Street toyshops kept pushing and lo and behold, back from the dead, there’s his multimillion dollar Emigrant loophole in last week’s bipartisan highway funding bill. And here’s a coincidence: As reported by Zach Carter, The Huffington Post’s senior political economy reporter, “Bank vice chairman Harriet Edelman has given $3,000 to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) since the 2014 elections. Over the same time period, Howard Milstein, his wife Abby and their son Michael have given $16,200 to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and $5,400 to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). In the 2012 cycle, Howard and Abby gave $10,000 to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
“Such campaign finance figures are typically associated with shepherding a bill through a committee, not ensuring that they actually become law. But Shelby, Wyden, Schumer and Brown were all part of the highway bill negotiating team. After Democrats fought off GOP efforts to defang broader Dodd-Frank policies, they let the Emigrant provision slide.”
Yes, it’s a holiday miracle at this most wonderful time of the year. God bless us, every one.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This story originally appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/in-congress-christmas-is-a-time-of-giving-and-receiving/]