Saturday, April 19, 2008

Golden Rules & Revolutions: A Series - VIII

April 19, 2008, 8:30 a.m.

Today is the eighth and final blog entry in the series, "Golden Rules & Revolutions." Here are the prior seven:

I - Income Disparity & Revolution
, April 12, 2008
. "Series Introduction," "Increasing income disparity, despair. . .," ". . . and Revolution"

II - Golden Rules & Fascism, April 13, 2008
. "The Golden Rule," "Fascism"

III - Money and Lobbyists in Politics: Washington, April 14, 2008

IV - Presidential Candidates and Lobbyists: McCain, April 15, 2008

V - Presidential Candidates and Lobbyists: Clinton, April 16, 2008

VI - Money and Lobbyists in Politics: Iowa, April 17, 2008

VII - Money and Lobbyists in Iowa: Hormel's Pork
, April 18, 2008

# # #

Money and Lobbyists in Iowa: Smoke and Mirrors

Part I of this series noted not just the gap in income between the rich and the poor, but the fact that this gap is continuing to grow ever wider, and that history -- as well as the daily news -- provides ample warning that this condition often produces revolution.

Part II began the exploration of the forces that may be shaping these potentially dangerous conditions -- including the ties between business and government eerily reminiscent of the early stages of what we used to call "fascism."

Part III took us to Washington for some general descriptions of how the system works, what campaign contributors get for their money, the role of lobbyists, and a columnist's description of one case study.

Part IV dealt with how the role of lobbyists extends beyond their manipulation of government into the pre-governing phase: presidential campaigns -- beginning with Senator John McCain.

Part V examined Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign from this perspective -- and tried to figure out who is the biggest "elitist."

Part VI returns to an application of the subject of Part II: "the ties between business and government eerily reminiscent of the early stages of what we used to call 'fascism.'" Although this time, instead of looking down the road to Washington for the consequences of "Money and Lobbyists in Politics" we take a shorter drive -- to Des Moines and Iowa City.

Part VII offers one example, from among dozens that could be mentioned, of "Money and Lobbyists in Iowa" -- the tax breaks, cash and infrastructure offered to Hormel.

Part VIII wraps up this series with an example of the impact of money on Iowa's legislative process and some concluding thoughts.

Former Governor Tom Vilsack took "campaign contributions" from the nursing home industry. Iowa's present Governor, Chet Culver, received $15,500 from the nursing home industry during the last two years -- at a time when lax state inspections of nursing homes have been criticized. I don't mean to suggest a connection, and neither did the Des Moines Register story, but the governors' responses to these observations remind me of the Queen's line from William Shakespeare's Hamlet: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

A former Iowa legislator, Democrat John Tapscott, a critic of the industry, asked both Culver and his predecessor, Tom Vilsack (both Democrats) to return the payments.

Vilsack wrote to Tapscott and said: "[I]f you believe that the taking of this contribution in some way affects my ability to do that job, I can assure you it does not." . . .

Culver spokesman Brad Anderson said, . . . "The idea that contributions have affected in any way the regulation of the nursing home industry by the Department of Inspections and Appeals under this administration is patently false . . .."
Clark Kauffman, "Culver won't part with nursing home industry's donations," Des Moines Register, April 7, 2008.

Unfortunately, this kind of investigative reporting of money in Iowa politics and governing is all too rare. Occasionally there will be stories regarding which legislators have raised how much money. There may even be a reference to where some of that money came from. Very rarely is there an effort to investigate the extent to which there is a relationship between the sources of campaign funds and the votes of the recipients -- let alone a routine reporting of these relationships for every single member of the Iowa legislature.

Nor has there been much reporting about the use of money as legislative power inside the legislature. To what extent is "leadership" purchased? What of those legislators who raise "campaign funds" far in excess of reasonable need in order to pass them along to the leadership, their relevant state parties -- or to their less prosperous colleagues. Is there any correlation between their "generosity" and the fact they end up chairing committees?

Understand, I'm only raising questions, not providing answers. Indeed, my point, my complaint, is that we don't have the answers, answers I think are necessary in a democracy, answers we can rightfully expect the media to provide for us. Iowa's springtime legislature pure as Iowa's wintertime snow. But it is possible -- just barely possible -- that they may share some of the practices that have been a part of American politics during the past century in the other 49 states and Washington.

For example, where are the current news stories tying campaign contributions and lobbying expenses to the otherwise rather bizarre votes of Iowa legislators banning smoking throughout the entire state of Iowa -- except for gambling casinos?

As Rekha Basu reports, "The result came out of political deal making, not logic. The exemption was put in after hard lobbying by the casino industry." Rekha Basu, "Logic takes detour with smoking-ban exemptions," Des Moines Register, April 11, 2008.

When I say "where are the stories" I don't mean to suggest there are no such stories -- with the details of dates (over time as well as last 12 months), amounts ("in-kind," trips and entertainment as well as cash), names of donors (gambling and tobacco industry individuals as well as PACs) and recipients (political parties as well as legislators and their leadership), Nevada and other out of state money, and so forth. I just mean the question literally: if you've seen them please put a comment on this blog entry as to where they are so I can make reference to them.

Can those legislators who insisted on the casino exemption give us equal, governor-quality assertive assurances that their votes were not in any way influenced by campaign contributions, lobbyist pressure and favors, or other benefits?

Once again, as in Part VI, Bob Patton is on top of it:

Bob Patton, "Well, 99 out of 100 ain't bad, I guess" Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 12, 2008, p. A12, posted April 11, 2008, 4:33 p.m.

[The text, if the drawing is not clear on your screen: An unsavory guy labeled "Gambling Lobby," with a cigar in his left hand holds a sign in his right: "Casino Exemption" signed "XXXOOO Iowa Legislature." He's flicking the ashes through a hole his cigar has burned in a tent top labeled "State Smoking Ban" where they fall on "Casino Employees" standing next to "99% of the Rest of Iowa's Workers" who are protected by the "State Smoking Ban." The caption reads, "Hey, if youse casino workers don't like it, den next time git youse own lobby!" This is, of course, a reference to the fact that those who suffer the most from the cancer-causing consequences of second hand smoke -- and similarly benefit the most from smoking bans -- are those who must spend full work days in their employers' smoke-filled rooms.]

Concluding remarks.
State 29 went after me yesterday for my "cluelessness" and his belief that "It's a shame when 'classical' liberals like Johnson lose their critical marbles" -- a reference to my failure to go after Senator Obama with the enthusiasm brought to the task by ABC's Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos during the first 45 minutes of the so-called ABC-sponsored "debate" the evening of April 16. State29, "Sawed-Off Support for Obama," April 18, 2008.

These comments of State29 reflect my apparent failure to make clear the purpose and scope of this blog series -- to, at a minimum, at least this one reader.

The purpose has not been to evaluate the presidential candidates. I have done that elsewhere, early and often, throughout the primary season. See, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "Politics: Assessing Candidates' 'Experience,'" The Gazette, March 30, 2008, p. A9, reprinted as "Gazette Op Ed: Candidates' 'Experience,'" March 30, 31, 2008. In that piece, not incidentally, I was fully as critical of Senator Obama's lack of experience as I was of the comparable lack of presidentially-relevant experience on the part of Senators Clinton and McCain.

This "Golden Rules & Revolutions" series was focused on a much different and broader topic.

It began with the "Golden Rule" definition that "those who have the gold make the rules" and the observation from history, as well as our daily news, that when the rules are designed to, and do result -- as they do -- in ever-increasing disparities in income between rich and poor the destination at the end of this yellow brick road of gold most often turns out to be a revolution as harmful to the rich as the poor.

How it gets this way is in large measure a matter of "campaign contributions" (the quotes because of the slim difference from "bribes") and the role of lobbyists -- in Des Moines and Iowa City as well as Washington, up to and including our current presidential campaign.

(The reason, incidentally, that Senator Obama was not discussed at length with regard to money and lobbyists in presidential campaigns is that he isn't a very good illustration. Senators Clinton and McCain are surrounded by lobbyists, and unapologetically awash in money from special interests and the wealthy. They were both good examples of the point I was trying to make at that stage of the discussion. Senator Obama, with 1.3 million contributors, although he has raised the most money, has obtained far more of it from those donating under $200 than have the other two, does not take money from PACs, and so far as I know does not have special interest lobbyists as top campaign advisers. That may or may not make him a "better" candidate or potential president in your eyes; but for my purposes in this discussion it merely made him not very relevant or useful.)

So what can we do about all this -- a government that's up for sale to the highest bidder, the role of campaign contributions and lobbyists, and the resulting 1000-to-one return to the special interests of taxpayers' money in the form of subsidies, earmarks, bailouts, TIFs, and other tax breaks?

The story is told of the pollster who asked a scientific sample of the citizens of his lackluster community, "What do you think is the worst problem about the people in this town, ignorance or apathy?" The majority answered him simply, "I don't know and I don't care."

So we can begin by caring, move on to knowing, and end up participating.

Whether they lie or really believe what they're saying, politicians who tell you what they are going to do for you, or to you, are not talking about democracy. Democracy isn't a top-down idea; it's a bottom-up idea.

That means, as the old saying has it, "If you're not a part of the solution, you're a part of the problem."

This series may or may not have been successful. I may have failed to explain sufficiently clearly what its purpose was intended to be. I would even concede that my analysis may be wrong -- or at least not widely held by others.

But it was an example of my little efforts to be a part of a solution.

# # #


Anonymous said...

I don't see how you can let this topic go buy and not mention the fact that the Unions bought themselves a change in the collective bargaining laws in the session that is currently going on.

Democrats were so proud of this gift to their union masters that they tried to pass it on Good Friday.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your blogs. Have no comment for you except that you make me think and move so that's good! One person can make a difference they say.