Want to know how Washington really works? Can you say, “Crony capitalism”?
Roll Call has just reported on yet another scandal that shows the character of some of our representatives in Capitol Hill, and the picture isn't pretty.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa indicates that former mortgage company Countrywide Financial Corp. offered discounts on home loans to hundreds of Washington officials, including several Congressmen and a myriad of government workers. Countrywide's "VIP Unit" was happy to provide these perks to those who were in a position to return the favor.
This VIP Unit processed loans for Congressmen Pete Sessions, Edolphus Towns, Elton Gallegly, and Howard 'Buck' McKeon. Sessions has since been shown to have rejected the discount, so there's at least one honest politician in Washington, but the rest of the cohort haven’t shown themselves to be possessed of similar virtue. And the net spread far wider than just our elected officials.
Hundreds of perks went to federal officials or employees of federally backed entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The vast majority of Countrywide’s favors landed on the doorstep of employees at Fannie Mae. In an "I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine" arrangement, Fannie Mae was working to protect Countrywide's irresponsibly risky subprime bets—bets that ultimately led to Countrywide’s collapse and Fannie Mae’s bailout by—you guessed it—Congress.
This story is all-too-familiar. It is emblematic of the way Washington works. The last ten years alone have provided us with a smorgasbord of bribery, fraud, tax evasion, and money laundering, including the Jack Abramoff scandal which eventually landed Abramoff and Congressman Bob Ney in prison and further sullied the reputation of the already-sullied Tom Delay. Other names on the "fraud's greatest hits" list include Rick Renzi, Charles Rangel, Ted Stevens, Randy Cunningham, William Jefferson, and Jim Traficant—the list goes on and on.
Sadly, the problem isn't just in Washington. Corruption runs rampant in state houses across the country. In a very real sense, corruption is the new norm, and all too often, it's perfectly legal. Special interests invest in political campaigns as a cost of doing business. Their goal is to ride the right horse across the finish line and then demand a return on their investment when their candidate is firmly ensconced in office. Often, they hedge their bets by contributing to more than one of the horses in the race.
Of course, these Kings of K Street deny "buying influence." They argue that they are simply "gaining access." Don't be fooled—it's a distinction without a difference. Just try gaining this kind of "access" from your own representative without making a contribution. You'll find yourself at the back of the line with a horde of professional lobbyists ahead of you.
“Pay to play” is the way business is done in the halls of government across the country, and the problem is getting worse. The Washington Post reports large growth in major donations to politicians campaigning for congressional seats, largely funneled through massive super PACs (political action committees): "[S]ome 1,600 House and Senate candidates raised a combined $884.6 million as of March 31—compared with $685.9 million in 2008…. Candidate campaigns reported $610.6 million cash on hand at the end of the first quarter, a 23 percent increase from four years ago." So not only has Washington reeked of corruption over the past decade (make that decades), the problem is escalating rapidly as more and more money enters the fray from a small group of special interests.
A lack of character is the heart of the problem. Sound personal character is essential to a sound government, but many of our current and former politicians have been tried and found wanting. Reforms aren't working—in fact, most campaign finance "reforms" simply make it easier for incumbents to be reelected. They stifle the infusion of new blood. Reelection then becomes easier than election.
George Washington declared, "Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder." The practices of our political leaders across the country are a sad testament to the truth of Washington’s observation.
So what are we to do? Washington's quote points to the voters’ responsibility: We must seek out men and women of character and integrity to be our representatives. We must demand that they respect the will of their constituents over the will of their largest donors. And we must show zero tolerance for those in office who allow their heads to be turned by the lure of perks and power.