Monday, January 09, 2006

No to the Nattering Nabobs of Negativism

Watch out! While federal investigators are steadily pulling the lid off the sewer that is Washington politics, exposing every sleazy and slimy practice you can imagine, a strange coalition of battle-weary journalists, slick DC operators and ethically-challenged ex-Congressmen are starting to hit the media with a dangerous message. They want to quell rising public demand for real change, which is the natural response to the corruption we're seeing as the full workings of DeLay Inc. are laid bare. To wit, look at Todd Purdum in yesterday's New York Times Week in Review, DC uber-lawyer Jan Baran in yesterday's Washington Post, investigative reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum in today's Post, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich just about anywhere, including NPR's Morning Edition today.

I wrote about Purdum's piece at greater length yesterday on my personal blog, but here's what they all are saying in common:
1. Don't get so upset, it's not like corruption in Washington is a new problem.
2. Big government is the real problem; if it weren't for all those pesky government regulators threatening to interfere in someone's livelihood, there wouldn't be so much lobbying.
3. Oh, and lobbying is actually a good thing that educates Members of Congress on complicated issues and helps all kinds of Americans get heard.
4. Don't expect any big changes, or for them to make a big difference.

A few quick responses. First of all, we have every right to be upset. The DeLay-Abramoff scandals are just the tip of the iceberg, the culmination of more than a decade or two of Washington policy being sold off to the highest bidders. Cast your mind back over the bulk of legislation passed by Congress in the past two decades of Big Money running Washington and you'll see what I mean: bankruptcy "reform" written by credit card companies to screw poor debtors; deregulation of the banking, securities and insurance sectors that led to rampant corporate malfeasance and greed and the destruction of the retirement plans of millions of small investors; deregulation of the telecom sector producing media conglomeration and cable industry price gouging; rampant overpricing of pharmaceutical drugs and the creation of false scarcity (i.e. no reimports from Canada) to keep those prices high; blocking of any increase in the minimum wage (except for one larded with billions in subsidies to big business), etcetera, etcetera.

Second, there's no real correlation between the growth of government and the explosion of favor-seeking by lobbyists and favor-selling by Members. Government didn't double in size between 1992 and 2004, either in budget terms or regulatory terms, but campaign spending has more than doubled (from $1.6 billion to $3.9 billion). The number of registered lobbyists quadrupled in the first half of the 1980s, Purdum points out in his article--not actually a time of overall government growth, but actually a time when the lobbyists got to feast at Gucci Gulch (a metaphor for all the tassled loafers padding the halls of Congress) and got themselves all kinds of special tax benefits, boondoggles, and the first wave of government deregulation (that among other things led to the savings and loan scandals).

Third, while lobbying is indeed rightfully protected by the First Amendment, that's not what the problem. It's that there's absolutely no balance in whose up there hobnobbing with our public representatives. Baran has this amusing paragraph in his defense of lobbying:
While officials may prefer to legislate without being importuned by those affected or by their representatives, that is not the way laws should be made in an open democratic society. The founders sought to ensure the public interest by promoting pluralism and protecting the participation of all. How then can it be surprising that there are now more than 27,000 registered lobbyists petitioning on behalf of business, labor, the environment, education, abortion rights, the elderly, the poor, ethnic groups and more?

Isn't it nice how he makes it sound as if business is just one small interest alongside all those more wholesome groups and issues? We all know this intuitively makes no sense. For example, advocates for people who use public transportation, public housing, and public hospitals are hardly lining the halls of Congress alongside their counterparts representing the auto companies, the airlines, the real estate industry, health care providers, for-profit hospitals, big insurance companies, and pharmaceuticals.

The last part of their Big Lie is the notion that there isn't much we can do to change this situation. Go for small steps, says Gingrich (who amazingly has been rehabilitated by the media as a champion of ethics after his paying a $300,000 fine for misleading Congress about his own abuse of tax-exempt charities!). We have to change the culture first, says Baran. Lobbyists will find their way around every new law, says Purdum. Public financing as a solution? Noble but impractical, says Birnbaum.

Collectively, what this adds up to is a lot of negativism about the possibility for positive change, precisely when the evidence showing the need for fundamental changes is most obvious. Do you buy it? We don't, and we're going to keep hammering on these nattering nabobs of negativism because, as Jon Stewart once said in a semi-related context, they're hurting America


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