The great movie comic and curmudgeon W.C. Fields once said, “You can fool some of the people some of the time — and that’s enough to make a decent living.”
The great movie comic and curmudgeon W.C. Fields once said, “You can fool some of the people some of the time — and that’s enough to make a decent living.” Watching the news from Washington last week, the late comedian’s words never seemed truer.
Take U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, appointed by former Illinois governor and fellow Democrat Rod Blagojevich to fill the seat vacated by Barack Obama. Testifying before the impeachment committee investigating Blagojevich, Burris claimed he had no conversations with anyone from the governor’s clan of cronies prior to his appointment. Now he says, oops, I just remembered — the governor’s brother asked me to raise $10,000. Or was it $15,000?
Then there are Republican congressmen John Mica of Florida and Don Young of Alaska. Both stood with their party, voting against President Obama’s economic stimulus. So did every other GOP House member. Twice.
But then, eager to ride a gravy train with a popular president at the throttle, each of them had the chutzpah to issue press releases praising aspects of the stimulus package — while never mentioning they’d actually voted “nay.” This was followed by the spectacle of several other Republican House and Senate members who voted against the stimulus touting the money the bill will provide their constituents.
But the prize of the week goes to the multitude of Congress members — both Democrats and Republicans — who enjoyed balmy Caribbean breezes and substantial campaign contributions thanks to the largesse of financier Robert Allen Stanford, now accused of bilking investors of some $9 billion and, like W.C. Fields, making a decent living at it.
Stanford prefers being called “Sir Allen.” He was knighted by the governor-general of the West Indies island of Antigua, off-shore headquarters for his alleged con game. He bankrolled “fact-finding” missions to Antigua and other Caribbean ports-of-call for several members of Congress.
“Sir Allen” partied with Nancy Pelosi and Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention last summer. And when Tom Delay was still House majority leader, he flew the friendly skies in Stanford’s private jets 16 times in three years — including a trip to Houston for Delay’s arraignment on money-laundering charges.
Stanford showered millions on political campaigns, much of it from 2001-02, the very time Congress was debating a bill to curb financial fraud with a computer network linking regulatory data bases. Three key Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee — then Chairman Paul Sarbanes, Charles Schumer and Christopher Dodd — were among those who received checks from Stanford. The reform bill never got out of the Senate.
According to the non-partisan and indispensable Center for Responsive Politics, over the last decade, Robert Allen Stanford spent nearly $5 million lobbying the Senate and House, on top of $2.4 million in campaign contributions to Federal candidates.
Stanford’s contributions were a spit in the bucket of what he’s alleged to have swindled, and just a tiny slice of the multibillion-dollar pie the lobbying business has become in Washington. Already, lobbyists are jumping all over President Obama’s economic stimulus, so much so the Washington, D.C., Examiner newspaper renamed the bill “The Lobbyist Enrichment Act.”
According to Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser, the lobby industry “has helped moneyed interests protect their status and privileges, undermined government regulation of business and turned our elected officials into chronic money-chasers.”
Kaiser, an intrepid, longtime reporter and native Washingtonian has a new book out titled “So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government.”
The fix is in, he told my colleague Bill Moyers, eliminating a fair competitive system. We should ask for more transparency, Kaiser suggests. And campaign finance reform would go a long way to making a difference, but he doesn’t think it likely anytime soon.
The “everybody does it” syndrome took over in Washington a long time ago and, in general, an indifferent, cynical public seems unmotivated to do anything about it.
“They do not expect Congress to do the right thing,” Kaiser said. “They do not expect high ethical standards. On the contrary.”
So why should the lobbyists and the government stop their profitable roundelay if we fail to do anything to stop the music and fall for the “everybody does it” chorus? Do we deserve what we get? The way lobbyists, special interests and politicians regard the citizenry brings to mind another W.C. Fields aphorism, the title of one of his movies: “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.”
Michael Winship is senior writer of “Bill Moyers Journal,” which airs Fridays.