In “As the World Burns”, The New Yorker magazine reveals how easily large corporate interests get Washington to give them goodies. Behind closed doors, legislators hand out billions of dollars so corporate honchos won’t criticize new proposals.
Get a glimpse of how our government works.
After the Fox News leak, a rumor had circulated that Congress wouldn’t pass a highway bill because of the Lindsey Graham gas-tax hike; Graham had to appease truckers in South Carolina. Now he insisted on eight billion dollars for the Highway Trust Fund, saying it was his price for staying. Frangione, Kerry’s aide, was “heartbroken,” a colleague said. It was an enormous amount of money within the confines of the bill, and spending anything on highways increased greenhouse-gas emissions. “Senator, please, just give me five minutes,” Rosengarten told Graham. “I’ll find your eight billion!” She and another Lieberman aide retrieved a spreadsheet they used to track all the spending and revenues in the bill. They fiddled with some numbers and—presto!—Graham had his money. (Later that day, Lieberman figured that, if they were going to spend eight billion dollars on highways, he might as well get some credit, too. He called the American Trucking Association to tell its officials the good news. They responded that they wanted twice that amount.)
Lest you think only conservatives work this way, let’s read more:
Kerry, despite his hesitations, wanted the oil companies, which had already spent millions attacking Waxman-Markey, to support his bill. So the senators proposed a deal: the oil companies would get the policy they desired if they agreed to a ceasefire. According to someone present, Kerry told his colleagues at the March meeting, “Shell, B.P., and Conoco are going to need to silence the rest of the industry.” The deal was specific. The ceasefire would last from the day of the bill’s introduction until the E.P.A. released its economic analysis of the legislation, approximately six weeks later. Afterward, the industry could say whatever it wanted. “This was the grand bargain that we struck with the refiners,” one of the people involved said. “We would work with them to engineer this separate mechanism in exchange for the American Petroleum Institute being quiet. They would not run ads, they would not lobby members of Congress, and they would not refer to our bill as a carbon tax.” At another meeting, the three senators and the heads of the three oil companies discussed a phrase they could all use to market the policy: a “fee on polluters.”
Still uncertain how prevalent such conduct is? Read on:
There was just one more deal to make. The Edison Electric Institute represents the biggest electric utilities, and its president, Thomas Kuhn, was another grandee in Republican circles. The E.E.I. already had almost everything it wanted: preemption, nuclear loan guarantees, an assurance that the cost of carbon would never rise above a certain level, and billions of dollars’ worth of free allowances through 2030 to help smooth the transition into the program. Now the E.E.I. had two new requests: it wanted a billion dollars more in free allowances, and it wanted the start date of the cap-and-trade regime pushed back from 2012 to 2015.
Within minutes, the senators had agreed to almost everything that Kuhn and his lobbyists were asking for. Their three staffers were dumbfounded. The K.G.L. side huddled near a water cooler and the aides staged a mini-rebellion against their bosses. “We were, like, ‘I can’t believe you just gave them all of that! You’ve got to be kidding, this can’t be the deal!’ ” one of them said. “And they were, like, ‘Well, we did it!’ You can’t put that amount of allowances on the table and take it back. You’ve dangled it. The baby’s already eating the candy.” In return for the candy, Kuhn promised that the E.E.I. would provide “a very supportive statement” when the bill was released.
The merchant and the mob come to my mind. Legislators act like desperately weak shopkeepers. With no realistic hope of conducting business honestly, the merchants give “syndicated” interests large pieces of their business in order to do any business at all.
The analogy, admittedly, has some flaws. For in the real world, shake down victims never receive money back from those holding them hostage. But legislators routinely reap significant financial benefits from doing business with big business.
Where does this ugly political process leave the average American? Don’t hold your breath waiting for a senator to offer you financial goodies if you’ll just sit quietly. Most Americans can’t endure the convolution of political machination and so never see the succulently sweet deals done on their dime.
Currently, important American issues impacting millions lie dormant in Washington with no zealous advocates to revive them. Many politicians have forgotten their actual clientele. American citizens pay them to do their jobs with the national interests in mind. Yet the feckless feel they must open the government grab bag to those who need no assistance. But doing the right thing should never require anyone to ask companies’ permission to do so. While we should encourage all quarters to provide the better idea, we should loathe those who require remuneration for simply not impeding the process.