The Insidious Revolving Door

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— Noun

1. A government characterized by the merger of corporate interests with state power to suppress opposition and subjugate workers

Anytime you use the word “fascism” to describe anything in American politics, you leave yourself open to criticism from all sides for being unnecessarily hyperbolic. And often the criticism may be entirely warranted. But it’s worth noting how recent developments in politics pose striking resemblances to what you would likely find in a fascist government – that is, a government controlled by BP, Exxon, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Lockheed Martin, among other corporate giants, and whose elected officials work primarily on behalf of and at the behest of these so-called “special” interests.

Let’s start with the Republican class of ’11 (we’ll get to the Democrats in a second). It was only a few months ago that Ron Johnson, a wealthy Republican businessman running for the US Senate in his home state of Wisconsin, accused his opponent, Sen. Russ Feingold, of being “on the side of special interests and lobbyists.” Throughout the campaign, Johnson argued that he was running for the Senate to go to Washington to clean up our corrupt government and work on the behalf of Wisconsin families, whereas his opponent was on the side of K-Street lobbyists and special interests. Leaving aside the fact that there was arguably no greater ally in the Senate for government reform and middle class families than Russ Feingold, the Johnson campaign drummed this narrative into the collective consciousness of Wisconsin voters, and ultimately went on to beat Feingold in the midterms. After winning the election, however, Johnson quickly abandoned such rhetoric and hired Donald H. Kent, a “homeland security lobbyist” (i.e. defense industry lobbyist) as his chief of staff.

Surprised? While it may be unfair to infer from the fact that Johnson appointed a corporate lobbyist to run his entire senate office that he is somehow not serious about the campaign pledges he made to the voters of Wisconsin, it’s certainly not a stretch to question what this appointment tells us about where Johnson’s political goals and aspirations really lie.

Mike Lee, the newly elected senator from Utah, is yet another example of political hypocrisy. Ushered in on a Tea Party platform of reform and fighting government corruption, Lee ousted former-Senator Bob Bennett in a heated Republican primary and then went on to win his seat in a general election handily. Yet immediately after his victory, Lee appoints “energy” lobbyist Spencer Stokes as his chief of staff, known for being one of the most prominent corporate lobbyists in Utah. Rand Paul, the newest Tea Party senator from Kentucky who beat his state’s Democratic Attorney General, Jack Conway, followed Lee’s lead and within days appointed anti-union corporate lobbyist Douglas Stafford as his chief of staff.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the new members of the Senate and the House, elected to represent their constituents, who chose to hire corporate lobbyists to head their offices. New Hampshire Representative Charlie Bass recently appointed food industry lobbyist (think: Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Sodexo, McDonalds, Monsanto, etc.) John W. Billings as his chief of staff. Minnesota Representative Chip Cravaack has hired lobbyist Rod Grams as his chief of staff, an individual who lobbied on behalf of 3M, Norfolk Southern, and the Financial Services Roundtable. The Washington Post notes that “Other incoming GOP lawmakers who have recruited staff from K Street include Robert Dold (Ill.), Steve Pearce (N.M.) and Jeff Denham (Calif.). John Goodwin of the National Rifle Association, one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying groups, has signed on as chief of staff for Rep.-elect Raul Labrador (Idaho).”

Arguably the most insidious example of the revolving door between Washington, K-Street, and corporate multinationals is the recent election of former Indiana Senator Dan Coats to the US Senate. If Senator Coats weren’t occupying such an important position within our government, the irony of his election would be truly laughable; however, since he is one of only one hundred citizens of our nation that control one fourth of our Federal government, his election marks an ominous turn in what we can expect from our future senators. This is a guy who used to be the senator from Indiana, but retired in 1999 to pursue a lucrative career as a corporate lobbyist. As a lobbyist for the last decade, Coats represented a lot of corporations; most notably, he headed a team of lobbyists who represented a Texas corporation named Cooper Industries. His task: to help Cooper Industries move their headquarters from Texas to Bermuda to evade paying hundreds of millions of dollars in US taxes. Needless to say, as a former senator, the tremendous access to the senate he enjoyed made his services incredible valuable, and Cooper Industries was ultimately successful in moving their HQ to Bermuda, thereby safeguarding hundreds of millions of dollars owed to this nation’s treasury. After making millions, he decided that he missed the power that comes with holding elected office, and ran to replace retiring senator Evan Bayh, winning re-election last November.

I could go on for pages – and trust me, I’d like to (Orrin Hatch’s connections to the lobbying industry are particularly juicy) – but for the sake of brevity, I think I’ve made my point. There is little difference between corporate lobbyists, the corporations for whom they work, and many of our so-called public servants in Washington. How can we not call this fascism? How about Fascism Lite? Dan Coats is a corporate lobbyist in disguise as a politician. The only logical explanation that one can make to explain why Indiana voters chose to elect this individual was that they were either ignorant of his past or apathetic about who goes to Washington. I refuse to accept that Indiana voters knowingly and actively pursued to elect an individual with such a long history of helping corporations evade taxes, among other blatantly anti-American activities.

When these reports first surfaced, I initially dismissed them as little more than typical Republican protocol. “This is what Republicans do,” I said to myself, feeling relatively little shock or outrage. But then President Obama picked Bill Daley (former JP Morgan Executive) as his chief of staff, which forced me to reconsider many of the assumptions I previously held with respect to the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats in Washington. Sure, Democrats are far better than Republicans on social issues, and all else being equal, this fact alone is sufficient for me to support them over their Republican challengers. But when it comes to economic issues, as well as how they raise money and cultivate support, I questioned whether there is really any significant difference between the two parties these days.

When reports surfaced that Peter Orzag, Obama’s former Budget Director, had left the White House to pursue a lucrative career (we’re talking multi-millions of dollars) at Citigroup, I also began to question these assumptions. What’s wrong with this, many may ask? Why shouldn’t Peter Orzag, after having worked hard for the Obama Administration, go on to sell his labor in the market to the highest bidder? From my perspective, there are two things wrong with this, neither of which necessarily have anything to do with Peter Orzag being corrupt or a bad person per se, but have more to do with the dysfunctional structure of our system. The first problem is that, as long as it is legal to go back and forth between working for the government, which is supposed to be a public service, to working for corporations, which is, by law, a job that requires its employees to maximize the narrow interests of the corporation, government employees will not risk alienating their future employers when the interests of the public conflict with the profits of corporations. To the contrary, many will do everything in their power to endear themselves to the corporations for whom they hope to one day work. What incentive does Peter Orzag, Bill Daley, Robert Gibbs, or, for that matter, Barack Obama, have to truly work on behalf of the American people when they know that if they instead work to further the interests of, say, Citigroup, they will increase their chances of having a lucrative career waiting for them when they decide to retire from government? This system creates perverse incentives to make bad policy decisions, many of which serve to undermine the general welfare of our nation by propping up the narrow interests of concentrated centers of power.

The second problem with this is that it blurs the line between public service and business, which are supposed to be two very different institutions. There is a fundamental difference between what one ought to do in government and what one ought to do in a private business: the former is to work to maximize the general welfare of our nation, the latter is to maximize the narrow self-interests of oneself or one’s business. They are not the same thing. But insofar as Peter Orzag and Dan Coats, et al, are able to seamlessly move back and forth between the two, it makes commonplace a view of government that ought to be extreme and widely rejected: that it is acceptable for public servants to treat the government like a market; to use government for one’s own personal benefit. This view, when widely accepted, invariably leads to engendering an apathetic, careless citizenry, which ultimately serves to undermine democracy as a functioning institution.

What are we to do to prevent the corrupt, insidious revolving door from continuing? In a recent Manhattan Young Democrats executive board meeting, for which, as the Health Care Committee Chairman, I was in attendance, I found myself arguing with a fellow member of the e-board about both the feasibility and efficacy of enacting meaningful campaign finance and governmental ethics reform on the federal level. In opposition to my views, this member argued that “it didn’t make any sense” to try and prevent individuals from moving back and forth between government and corporations, for two reasons.

First, because it would be unfair to restrict individuals who have, say, relevant experience in the oil industry but happen to work for the government for a few years from returning to ExxonMobil after his or her tenure as a government employee had ended. And second, because it’s unnecessary, in that such activity – going back and forth between industry and government — is neither illegal nor harmful to the public. Presumably, it is perfectly acceptable for a Democratic president to pick an oil executive to head the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, because that person has relevant expertise in the pertinent field for which this agency is responsible to regulate, and then allow that executive, after his tenure as head of this agency has ceased, to go back to running the oil company for which he once worked.

What are we to make of these arguments? Per the first argument, I believe that we need to erect an iron wall separating corporation and state, even if this results in preventing Peter Orzag or Dan Coats from working in the private sector as lobbyists, bankers or executives for a decade. We could make the regulation very simple: a former government employee cannot accept any money — directly or indirectly — from the industry for which he or she was tasked to regulate or whose actions may have affected the industry for which he or she was tasked to regulate for a decade after leaving government. In the off chance that Peter Orzag or Dan Coats, because of this regulation, have trouble finding work after their tenure as government employees has ended, then we could write into the law a provision that government workers could be eligible to continue to collect their modest government salaries until they find jobs as college professors or journalists or TV pundits.

This regulation would also have the correlative benefit of preventing individuals whose primary aims are to enrich themselves or their past or future employers from joining the government, for fear of being banned for a decade from the profitable industries for which they currently work. It would create a system that only draws individuals who are genuinely interested in public service to the government, and weeds out those who see public service as just a stepping-stone to furthering their own careers as lobbyists or future corporate executives. Having worked in the non-profit sector for some time now, trust me when I say that there are plenty of Americans who would gladly work in the government knowing that there awaits no future payoff. This is not a comprehensive solution to a problem that pervades every corner of both our federal and state governments, but it’s certainly a start.