Citizen Action Monitor

The challenge of bringing transparency to an American Corporatocracy

American activists Sheila Krumholz and Danielle Brian talk about the challenges they face as heads of independent watchdog NGOs in the US

No 752 Posted by fw, May 21, 2013

“I think that the most important thing for people to remember is that they can do something about it. I worry that people become despondent and walk away from government. I think that’s our biggest danger. Because in the end as we’ve talked about how industries will have endless lawyers and money to pursue lobbying. But they don’t have the numbers of people. Our side has the numbers of people. And if we can just remind people that getting engaged still is what’s going to put pressure on the public figures who don’t want to be embarrassed. Media matters. Bad press matters. Going to town halls and having people yell at you for doing something corrupt matters. And that’s what we need to remember to empower people to take action.” —Danielle Brian

corporatocracy — Economist Jeffrey Sachs described the United States as a corporatocracy in his book The Price of Civilization. He suggested that it arose from four trends: weak national parties and strong political representation of individual districts; the large U.S. military establishment after World War II; big corporate money financing election campaigns; and globalization tilting the balance away from workers. (Source: Corporatocracy, Wikipedia).

Bill Moyers is joined by the heads of two independent watchdog groups keeping an eye on government as well as on powerful interests seeking to influence it. Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics and, and Danielle Brian, who runs the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), talk about the importance of transparency to our democracy, and their efforts to scrutinize who’s giving money, who’s receiving it, and most importantly, what’s expected in return.

To watch the original broadcast and access the complete transcript, visit Moyers’ website by clicking on the following link. Or watch the 20:31-minute embedded version below and read an abridged version of the transcript, featuring added subheadings, text highlighting and hyperlinks.

Sheila Krumholz and Danielle Brian on How Money Rules Washington, Moyers & Company, May 17, 2013


[Introduction by Bill Moyers] – So what does it say about the state of democracy when public health is sacrificed to private profits because our political system has been bought out from under us? No two people are better qualified to answer that question than my next guests.

Now, the two of you have collectively been at this work of public watchdogs for more than 40 years. What have you learned in all that time about how money works?

In US, money spent on lobbying buys influence. Rising payoffs are now the norm

SHEILA — Money buys outcomes. It’s not that money is given as a quid pro quo to purchase a vote. But, well-placed contribution, money spent on lobbying, well-placed former aids now working to lobby are all assets that can be used by private interests to influence policy.

Every cycle, cycle after cycle, the money climbs inexorably up. So it has more than tripled in just the last decade in terms of all told — money going to candidates, political action committees and parties, and also the lobbying and now this secret dark money which is going to newly energized, newly formed political nonprofits that are actively trying to shape electoral outcomes.

Revolving door as senior bureaucrats exit government to enter corporations and vice versa

DANIELLE — Oh, there’s no question that it’s become the norm. And part of the problem with that is that people are less and less outraged. They get sort of used to it, journalists as well. And so I do think that what Sheila’s pointing to in addition to the campaign contributions and lobbying, which people think of when they think of money affecting government, it is also that revolving door that goes on where jobs, where people are leaving the federal government either from the Congress or the agencies and going to the industries that they had been overseeing or vice versa where they are leaving those industries and coming into the federal government.

These are the kinds of things that are really affecting policies. And then you have those same lobbyists who are dealing with legislation who are in the agency level who are also affecting how rulemakings, which is really some of the details that matter most. When a law is passed you then have to get down to the details, or the agency has to figure out exactly what the rules will be that implement that law. So that is one way that rulemakings are established. Sometimes an agency will just establish what new regulations will be without legislation. And either way, those same lobbyists are dealing at the agency level to make sure that their interests are protected.

As long as it’s legal no one questions the morality or ethics of corporate lobbying

SHEILA — It means that organizations — and mostly we’re talking about corporations — understand that Washington is often standing in the way of bigger profits for them. And so they see this as a perfectly legal, entirely common way for their companies to shape policy legislation, even regulation coming out of Washington that will ameliorate the damage and ultimately enhance their ability to turn a profit.

And so private interests if they are not successful in achieving their legislative agenda in Congress have other opportunities, many bites at the apple, to try to water down regulations that they see as onerous or to otherwise tweak laws as they are actually being implemented by the agencies.

Look at this headline: After a Powerful Lobbyist Intervenes, EPA Reverses Stance on Polluting Texas County’s Water. That’s a story from the news organizations ProPublica reporting that a big energy company wants permission from Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, for a large-scale mining project in Texas that would pollute a pristine supply of drinking water.

Got a problem? No problem! Cut a deal with Democrat fundraiser and fixer Heather Podesta

So the EPA says no, can’t have it. The big company hires Heather Podesta who’s a big time lobbyist, a big time fundraiser for Democrats who was married at the time to another big Washington Democratic fixer named Tony Podesta, who used to be president of the liberal organization People for the American Way.

Through their connections these two have become the king and queen of influence peddling. Lo and behold, some months after the industry hires Heather Podesta, EPA reverses itself and the company gets an exemption and is allowed to pollute the aquifer. To hell with the public health. This is routine, isn’t it?

Uneven playing field because Big Money has deep pockets that citizen activist organizations can’t match

DANIELLE — And it’s exactly what you’re talking about with the pay to play. So it’s, in this case you have companies that have the money and the resources to hire the lobbyists or the lawyers who will go to battle for their clients endlessly. I mean, those of us who are working on the other side in the public interest realize that when we have our wins which we get industry is going to be there and they’re going to keep going and fighting because they have those endless resources to keep battling back.

Difficult for activist watchdogs to know what’s going on inside a murky payoff system with revolving doors and reverse revolving doors

It’s the question of who is paying those influencers, who is behind that which is often not transparent and part of what we really think is essential is to make these communications even at the agency level. For example, if we could get visitors logs, many of the agencies track electronically if we’re going to visit an agency you’re listed. Those logs are not public. If we could get a better sense of, who are these people who are coming through the door to meet with the people for example at the EPA, we would have a better sense of what was going on.

SHEILA — And that’s especially important because we do know that there are over 12,000 registered lobbyists advocating on behalf of their clients in Washington. And we can see who they are, whether they’ve already spun through revolving door coming from Capitol Hill or elsewhere in government to advocate on behalf of these paying clients and how much they’re being paid. But we also need to see those senior advisors, others who are not technically registered as lobbyists but are in fact doing much the same work, advocating on behalf of a paying private client.

Unfortunately the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which governs disclosure of lobbying activity does not mandate that lobbyists disclose whom they’re meeting with. So they only say, “We lobbied the House of Representatives, or we lobbied the Senate,” which is ridiculous. That doesn’t provide us with a roadmap to exactly who their targets are in Congress

DANIELLE — It’s really I think the revolving door is maybe the most important corrupting element of in Washington because of — you have what we call, in this case that’s a reverse revolving door, right. But either way what you’ve got is people who are coming to the government or to be in public service with an incentive coming from their prior employer in this case.

You know, you’re not forgetting your friends who just gave you a multibillion or a multimillion dollar deal. Or you have people who are in the public service who are anticipating their next step, you know, their public service is essentially a stepping stone in their résumé to make more money. I don’t want that kind of person in my government. I would rather see that we have policies that really slow down the assumption that the reason you’re in government is to help go make money for yourself and for your next business afterwards.

Government loses expertise when public servants exit through the revolving door to join the lobbyists

SHEILA — It’s also damaging because it used to be, I think, that one could aspire to be a senior congressional advisor and that would be the pinnacle of your career, that would be a real achievement. Now young staffers are looking to trade on their investment in public service to leave work on Capitol Hill to go work on K Street for much more lucrative jobs very quickly. They’re not investing that time in public service. So I think that has had a damaging effect and means that the lobbyists are the ones that have the expertise. We’re losing expertise that’s not being developed on Congress, on Capitol Hill, it’s the seat of that is in some cases in K Street.

I think that is a large part of the cynicism that’s developed around government. People don’t see it as an honorable profession because the money is playing such an important role. Across the board from left to right people, Americans believe that government has been purchased, that it’s been corrupted by the money.

Recently five Congresspeople pocketed tens of thousands of dollars from private prison corporations

DANIELLE — You know what I found really shocking about the private prison industry is that recently you know, POGO tracks the top government contractors and their misconduct because the government hasn’t until recently actually done that which is shocking in itself. But only in the last couple of years suddenly two of the top government contractors are private prison corporations. That was pretty shocking to me.

And this is happening at a time where we see that there’s all kinds of legislation that is moving in Congress, that is criminalizing at a federal level, especially when it comes to immigration. We are very fascinated by that nexus. And I think it’s really terrifying. It raises the point that we haven’t touched on yet in terms of money in policy which is how much of what used to be done conducted by the federal government, by federal employees has been privatized to government contractors.

And that’s a whole separate way that money is influencing policy where entire agencies are essentially relying on employees that are private sector employees with private sector interests. And they are in many cases really pushing the agenda of those agencies.

Activists’ biggest problem is that the people become so cynical they simply ignore what’s going on

DANIELLE — Well, people need to see it, but then they need to do something about it. And I think that the most important thing for people to remember is that they can do something about it. I worry that people become despondent and walk away from government. I think that’s our biggest danger. Because in the end as we’ve talked about how industries will have endless lawyers and money to pursue lobbying. But they don’t have the numbers of people. Our side has the numbers of people. And if we can just remind people that getting engaged still is what’s going to put pressure on the public figures who don’t want to be embarrassed. Media matters. Bad press matters. Going to town halls and having people yell at you for doing something corrupt matters. And that’s what we need to remember to empower people to take action.

How can ordinary citizens help?

SHEILA — There are organizations like ours which are both credible, offering credible information, non-partisan information through which you can be informed and servicing opportunities to get involved, to take action on specific issues that are happening now

DANIELLE — I think that’s the key is those specific moments of time where it really will matter. And so we have at our website, at we have a signup list for people who are joining what we’re calling our good government army of people who really — are willing to join us in being nerdy sometimes and saying “okay, now is the time.” And we get not just the one person, but the one person times 10,000 making a point, the people in that agency will say, “Wow, I didn’t know anyone other than Heather Podesta was looking.”

SHEILA — And whether it’s agency staff or whether it’s members of Congress, they’re not going to risk the liability of being seen as allied with the moneyed interests against the public interests, particularly for elected officials. They know what side their bread is buttered on and it’s the voters who hold, kind of the cards here. We need to make sure that they [members of Congress and their staff] understand that we [watchdogs and citizens] are paying attention. Because it’s those secret deals that are most powerful. When we can expose the money and the players we help neutralize their impact.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I claim no ownership of such materials. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing.

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