Home Politics When John McCain Grappled with the Best Congress Money Can Buy

When John McCain Grappled with the Best Congress Money Can Buy

Trainwreck by Nancy Ohanian
Trainwreck by Nancy Ohanian

Most recent plaudits for John McCain focus on flashes of character on his campaign trail when he condemned crazed birther and racist attacks on candidate Obama. I’d like to jump in the Way-back and travel to when McCain earned a “maverick” label.

Give Senator McCain praise for his early efforts at campaign finance reform, done across the aisle with then-Senator Russ Feingold. It was a step in the right direction. Seeking to boost such efforts, I wrote essays critical of the purchase of our political system via the low art of the thinly disguised bribe. One of those is enclosed below, written for Barron’s in fall of ’96, appearing in the Other Voices column Jan. 13th, 1997.

Over two decades later, please forgive the essay several anachronisms. Tax-deductions for bribery abroad are now verboten in the treaty mentioned. When I referred to entitlement reform, I meant nothing like the ham-handed cruelty now afoot, but more in the realm of means-testing, or caps on medicare medical fees. The amounts of money politicians grub for and the increasing time they spend doing it has grown so much worse the essay has acquired a veneer of virgin innocence.

Bought and Paid Justice by Nancy Ohanian
Bought and Paid Justice by Nancy Ohanian

And Dark Money – as described by Jane Mayer – with its Three-Card Monte mix-and-match with Super-Pacs, has tilted the power centers. It helped make disclosure, once the fall-back position for reform opponents, a fantasy of Supreme Court justices like the late Scalia. One can’t fail to acknowledge Justice Anthony Kennedy’s biggest legacy, our democracy afire via the Citizens United accelerant. Hope for a campaign finance case that will coax Kennedy to come to Jesus before he leaves the Court.

Lobbyists by Nancy Ohanian
Lobbyists by Nancy Ohanian

Dark money, the gift that keeps on giving, even coordinated gifting us Justice Gorsuch, here.

Another change goosed by Citizens United is the increasing purchase of state judges and justices, often on a par with the purchase of congressmen. Here’s a piece on that. This major driver of inequality at the state level, where most legal rubber hits the road, methodically disadvantages prospects for the little guy. It’s sacking the public’s faith in law and justice. That has many consequences, none of them good.

A note on the phrase ‘…when the White House was caught Huanging it.’ For some interesting reads, do a search on a campaign finance scandal, Chinagate, involving Charlie Trie, John Huang, Johnny Chung and Liu Chaoying. They connect to a definite crime, the laundering of money from foreign sources, mainly China, to impact the 1996 election. I bet the blowback planted the seeds for the Clinton Foundation as a get-around for currying foreign favor.

That scandal is instructive to those puzzled why Trump hasn’t yet departed town on a rail. Perhaps when the Kochs and Mercers and Wall Street judge Trump’s Rumpelstiltskin antics counterproductive to their aims – when shiny objects Trump tosses about lose their distraction magic – then Pence’s prospects will rise. Cue Bill the Cat.

You-know-who, spotted by Nancy Ohanian
You-know-who, spotted by Nancy Ohanian

Recall Obama spurning public financing. Where did he fly cast for some of his biggest contributors when he first ran for President? Big banks, including a US subsidiary of Swiss bank UBS, and law firms that service them. How’d you like way his Attorney General, old Bulldog Holder, went after banksters? Did you enjoy the way people foamed the runway for banks that brought so many to ruin? If there’s one word summing up the anger propelling Trump’s victory, it’s “banks.” What they got away with was all courtesy of campaign finance from the Big Money, which also greases government’s revolving door. If you’d like to see how a UBS whistleblower fared under DOJ, here.

The backlash to coddling bankers is a message to progressive candidates worth their salt. Strike a blow by publicly swearing off all contributions from any finger of the finance sector. It is also smart politics. Americans seek champions who’ll even the playing field, not time-bombs who’ll sell them out when the Big Money commands it. Search the late Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, and channel him. He told me in his last races his only campaign costs were stamps mailing back campaign contributions. Even more amazing, he chaired the banking committee, the ultimate slippery slope. Voters backed him because they knew he couldn’t be bought. Like one of The Untouchables. Dream of that.iggest contributors when he first ran for President? Big banks, including a US subsidiary of Swiss bank UBS, and law firms that service them. How’d you like way his Attorney General, old Bulldog Holder, went after banksters? Did you enjoy the way people foamed the runway for banks that brought so many to ruin? If there’s one word summing up the anger propelling Trump’s victory, it’s “banks.” What they got away with was all courtesy of campaign finance from the Big Money, which also greases government’s revolving door. If you’d like to see how a UBS whistleblower fared under DOJ, here.

In the essay, note an early styling of then-Rep. Chuck Schumer doing his shill of the seven veils for Wall Street. Holden Caulfield had a term of art that seems apt.

The essay, most points intact, follows below the painting of The Swamp by Nancy Ohanian:

The Swamp by Nancy Ohanian


King of the Hill

Disclosure alone won’t topple campaign money as the ruler of Congress

(Barron’s Other Voices, Jan. 13, 1997)

Not Long ago the Clinton Administration crowed about agreements with a number of countries to curb bribery in business abroad. Wide implementation of measures such as tax-deductibility of bribes is still a long march away. Still, the laudable effort reflects the belief in US charges that corrupt practices such as bribery in foreign procurement produce inefficiency, surprise derailments and social instability. The stock retort from parties resisting reform: There isn’t a dime’s difference between bribery abroad and the US campaign-finance system.

Plenty have professed to be shocked– shocked!– when the White House was caught Huanging it. Alas, many commentators conclude that stricter limits on donations and spending won’t work and that the only real solution is “absolute disclosure.”

Improvements in disclosure are needed, but by itself disclosure is woefully inadequate. Lip service for disclosure as the only route for reform is the fallback position of those in the lobbying world– givers, incumbent receivers and the growth industry between them. They’ll mumble anything to head off public anger at the low art of the thinly disguised bribe.

Reform is a tricky puzzle. Before accepting disclosure not as a tool but as a panacea, consider this: Most voters lack either the ability or the time to adequately decipher the true meaning of campaign contributions. Who figures the National Wetland Coalition for oil and land-development interests? Witness past parades of donors calling themselves housewives, large contributors’ most frequently listed occupation.

Some contributors, like the tobacco industry, have readily identified goals. But others aren’t so easy to figure. How many voters will sort out the quid pro quo of folks like Dwayne Andreas, who gives piles of money to everyone and has a long list of diverse objectives? How many will plumb the desires of a patent-law firm whose favored clients are foreign companies? What of domestic subsidiaries of foreign companies? Try tracking “soft money,” wonderfully malleable stuff that is laundered by the political parties themselves, often comes from equal-opportunity givers and goes wherever the parties want to put it.

Organizations and competitors already rush to filter the info for voters, but much of their messages turn to mush in the flood of interpretations. Voters must also decipher the political spin and agenda of groups offering to do the voters’ homework. Let the press do its job? Presumably it already tries in the limited space it’s allotted, but shining a light on all the shell games is a daunting task and anyway, would lead to information overload.

I once asked a top staffer for former US Sen. Alan Cranston, the California Democrat, how the senator coped with the flood of cash. He deadpanned: “People think if they give you a lot of money, they’re buying influence. But all they really buy is access.” Charles Keating must have thought the fictional wall between influence and access a hoot.

Just as corruption abroad results in inefficiencies that harm American companies, many US government inefficiencies, including bloat and waste, are traceable to our system of campaign finance. Political action committees and trade associations are dominated by members who are the most active because they seek the most. They are bidders in a political bazaar focused on the short term. A legislator’s response, “We’re looking closely at this,” is often code for, “It’s on the block, open your wallets.” Because so many politicians are unable to move for fear of alienating contributors, matters are often not taken up until a crisis arrives.

One example of legislative paralysis is in the arena of finance. According to the Center of Responsive Politics, interested parties seeking to influence the House and Senate banking committees spent nearly $60 million in campaign contributions in the first 18 months of the 1995-96 election cycle, exceeding all other industry and labor groupings, and totals are expected to rocket when the final five months are compiled. Did this advance a rational, comprehensive modernization of the financial-services world? No. Competing interests fought to a standstill. Finally, Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig, whose patience had run out, issued regulations that will accelerate modernization of the industry. Pros like William Seidman, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., praise Ludwig’s action as strengthening safety and soundness but Republican Alfonse D’Amato of New York, says he is “deeply troubled” by the comptroller’s action, and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, a member of the House Banking Committee, says the regulations’ impact on bank safety “is far too serious to be left to the discretion of regulators (in other words, open your wallets and we’ll get up another game).

As for rifle-shot legislation that succeeds, take a peek at our tax code. And from airwaves to sugar beets, gasohol to guns, the correlation between votes and contributions is startling.

One often hears that, in our $6 trillion economy, soft-drink advertising eclipses what is spent on campaigns. But it isn’t the amount, it’s where it goes, who gives it and how many on Capitol Hill spend most of their time seeking it. Senators raise an average of 15 grand or so a week, every week. Leon Panetta, the departing White House chief of staff recently estimated that legislators spend 60%-80% of their time with their palms out. He figures the madness continues because politicians are too insecure to tackle the system they know and which got them into office. Do we really want the chief criterion for the performance of our leaders – and often their staffs – to be their ability to raise money?

Even more repugnant to democratic ideals is the flip side of politicians’ money-raising – the threat, not at all thinly veiled, of retaliation against companies that give money to the opposition.

Oddly, one proposed solution to this state of affairs is to simply take off all limits and let politicians glide with a few fat-cat backers, restrained only by full disclosure. Including soft money, the top 1% of income earners already provide the vast bulk of campaign cash, exceeding PACs. Politicians needn’t be rocket scientists to know the majority of people in the top 1% view many issues – such as uncapped interest deductions on loans for high-priced homes – pretty much the same way. Again, disclosure falls short of revelation.

If you think we have funny races now, turn all our candidates into horses owned by the biggest bettors. As they won’t differ much on real issues, we will be treated to demagoguery. Their strategies will center not on better ideas but on engineering the failure of the opposition.

Applaud any tightening of disclosure, but the only way to curb undue influence, from both international and domestic sources, is to curb undue influence. That means curbing money. Banning soft money and giving teeth to the Federal Election Commission would be a big start. Voluntary participation in a system with spending limits, meaningful media access and citizen financing – which would also free politicians – with tough limits on contributions from every source would be even better. The public cost would be a pittance compared with the savings from more government decisions based on the merits; consider just the cost of delayed oversight of the thrift industry.

Those who would limit reforms to disclosure cite the difficulty, both judicial and legislative, in keeping both foreign and domestic money from finding indirect routes. But that difficulty also applies to the proper disclosure of the routes money takes into one pocket and out the other. That’s why real contribution limits are necessary.

Until the Supreme Court wises up and admits that unlimited money isn’t unlimited speech, participation in a public financing system will have to be voluntary. But polling shows strong, consistent support for public financing. Access to meaningful media formats at reduced cost must be a component. As voters rebel against the cynicism expressed by turn-of-the-century writer Elbert Hubbard, “Government is a kind of legalized pillage,” big spenders who scoff at a serious reform system are likely to suffer backlash.

The confused message our system sends abroad, and perhaps at home, was made clear recently when the bureau chief of a South American TV network asked me: “What is wrong with influence from foreign contributions? After all, we live in a global economy.” I answered that if nothing were wrong with it, folks like Lincoln couldn’t pen phrases like “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” but I don’t think I was persuasive.

Conventional wisdom on the last campaign is that a wary public balanced a Democratic White House with a Republican Congress. But a nationwide agreement between voters to neutralize parties was less a factor then the money-raising power of incumbency.

That power is the enemy of reform. Vice President Gore, Rep. Dick Gephardt and others seeking the White House are already pulling levers on the fund-raising machinery, as are congressional incumbents. The desire for another day, another dollar won’t abate unless the public insists that this is a matter of national shame. Then real reforms may become an irresistible avenue for a White House mea culpa and political absolution. Restoring credibility to government will enhance elected officials ability to carry a tough sell, such as entitlement reform, to the public, without being handed their heads.

If the fallout from John Huang brings about real campaign-finance reforms – perhaps the greatest accomplishment the President and Congress might achieve – we should all take Mr. Huang to lunch. Campaign money, like rainwater, will always seek the leaks in our democratic roof, but that’s no reason not to keep plugging the holes. People who wait only for fixes that are absolutes will be waiting for Godot. Voters know our system of campaign finance attacks the concept of one person, one vote, and their sense of disenfranchisement just provided the lowest Election Day turnout since 1924.

In short, there is no greater driver of inequality, the wealth gap and state capture than our peculiar legalized bribery.

To glimpse some of the mischief tooling through Congress and the Administration, and its impacts on the vulnerable, keep an eye on the Economic Policy Institute’s site.

And if I can digress (yup!), there is no greater distortion of American ideals than the big money teaming with ideological pressure groups. How about a current attempt to shred America’s First Amendment rights on behalf of a foreign power, using draconian penalties usually associated with dictatorships? From The Intercept the Israel anti-boycott act would screw frustrated Americans seeking decent treatment for Palestinians by turning them into criminals. Be wary of pandering Senators and Representatives, including a boatload of Democrats, pushing this disgrace. Profiles in courage, something less. This nonsense is worthy of Joe McCarthy and Trump mentor Roy Cohn. Here’s an analysis by the ACLU. It ought to be front-page outrage, but newspapers aren’t eating their Wheaties.

For those who can find time to catch at least a few articles or to research a candidate’s contributors, there are fine organizations helping sort the bribes. Among them MapLightOpen SecretsCommon CauseDemocracy 21 and for state politics, Follow the Money. Most people understandably depend on journalists looking past the shiny tweets to provide real insights, such as on agendas implemented by Trump appointees who are Goldman Sachs alumni. Please.

Here’s a sample, a timely dark money nugget from MapLIght, examining the murky American Action Network. With close ties to Paul Ryan, AAN is the largest benefactor of the Congressional Leadership Fund Super-Pac. The AAN spent millions pushing Trump Care, corporate tax reform and GOP special election victories in Georgia and Montana. Only a fraction of AAN funders have been discovered, but they include PhRMA and Aetna. One AAN co-founder is Fred Malek, once a director of CREEP and Nixon’s hatchet-man practiced in driving out civil servants suspected of insufficient loyalty to Nixon. Search Malek Manual for flavor.

Paul Ryan by Nancy Ohanian
Paul Ryan by Nancy Ohanian

A quick caution – resist temptation for a Constitutional Convention to address the money plague. That’s a Pandora’s Box in waiting.

For a 1994 run at the influence topic, done for the Christian Science Monitor, here.

If not for Bernie’s bully pulpit articulations on the harmful influence of Big Money, where would the conversation be? What prospect for reform?

Forget it, Jake. It’s Congress-town.

A personal thought on McCain’s healthcare vote:

I pulled this post after McCain’s first vote appeared to put so many families less financially fortunate in peril. Then came the McCain Cha-Cha, filling out the dance cards of Murkowski and Collins. I wish he’d given an epiphany speech on single-payer, but I’ll take what we got.

Obamacare Repeal by Nancy Ohanian
Obamacare Repeal by Nancy Ohanian

I hope McCain catches a miracle. Odds are tough. Years ago at a high school reunion a buddy I hadn’t seen in a while told me what he was going through, the same unforgiving brain cancer as McCain’s. Down to a last-ditch cobalt bomb – which didn’t stop it. A brilliant scholar in ancient languages, my friend was distressed over memories that defined him disappearing. My sadness mixed with terror. My young son had recently had surgery for a large brain tumor in his front left lobe. Fortunately a different malady off cancer’s Chinese menu, but we almost lost him because of, in my view, unnecessary damage and delay from an HMO doctor putting off more expensive tests that would have caught it months earlier. Children’s National wizards saved him in the nick after he was rushed to them in an ambulance after finally getting a CT-scan.

Then for many years we paid huge monthlies, afraid of rocking the boat because of a pre-existing condition. Everyone, particularly my son, worked hard at catching him up. Forty-five MRI’s later, my hero’s in college and I’m confident is skating free. I can’t imagine anyone who’s lost sleep over keeping children covered not recognizing how single-payer would calm such stress. Best fortunes to those coping with it.

So thanks, Senator McCain, for dancing with Senators Murkowski and Collins, and buying us all some time to contemplate a real solution.

Contemplating Donald Trump's Future by Nancy Ohanian
Contemplating Donald Trump’s Future by Nancy Ohanian

Con-artists like Trump are adept at detecting their marks’ vulnerabilities and fears. During the campaign he played cleverly to the health care angst of millions, even as Republicans strained to exacerbate ACA shortcomings. Now he’s throwing the many worried about their healthcare under buses driven by mega-rich, right-wing disciples of economist James Buchanan, as noted by historian Nancy MacLean, here.

Bonus tangent: Sheldon Adelson, who loads political dice by loading the coffers of politicians, hates the idea of a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. A fine he caught for mischief in China was pocket change. But if enforcement really revved up, I wonder if scrutiny on Macau and China might hang the FCPA over his head like the sword of Damocles. Judging by Trump’s appointees’ negative views on the FCPA, Trump is also not a FCPA fan. Perhaps Mueller’s investigators will take note as they wander the waterfront. Russia, if you’re listening, how about a hint? I think you will probably be rewarded mightedly by our press.

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