American Politics in Moral Free-Fall

            A dark cloud hangs over our country. With the recent Las Vegas mass murder and our government’s pathetic response to the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico, America’s fall from grace quickens. While Donald Trump embodies much of that darkness, all of the blame for the ugly state of our country’s politics cannot be laid at his feet. Both political parties bear a good deal of the responsibility. When it comes right down to it, all that seems to matter to our politicians is winning and the money it takes to come out on top.

            Back in 2009, not long after Barak Obama was elected president, the Republican Congressional leadership agreed to a “strategy of all-out resistance” to the new Democratic president.1 Despite Obama’s considerable efforts to reach out to Congressional Republicans, they continually refused to work with him.2 Beating our first African-American president was much more important to the Republicans than helping millions of Americans obtain health insurance. That was the case despite the fact that Obamacare was fashioned after the conservative Heritage Foundation’s market-based proposal which Republican Governor Mitt Romney had already implemented in Massachusetts.3

                  Obama and the Democrats put politics before people as well. Rather than helping millions of Americans avoid losing their homes during the Great Recession, the Obama administration chose to direct almost all of the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) funds to the Wall Street banks whose corrupt and fraudulent practices were largely responsible for the country’s economic collapse.4 Moreover, Obama refused to extract foreclosure relief measures from our nation’s biggest banks in return for the huge bailout they received. Apparently, Obama and his big banker appointees cared a great deal more about the president’s campaign contributors on Wall Street than they did about average Americans on Main Street. No Wall Street bankers went to jail for the grave damage they had caused the country.5

            Since then, our politics have only gotten worse. During the entire eight years of the Obama presidency, the Republicans were the ‘Party of No.’ Unprecedented in modern American history, they refused to work with the president on practically any issue. While they were unable to defeat Obamacare, the GOP’s obstructionism assisted them in attaining numerous victories. Not only did the Republicans win back the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, but they also denied Obama a Supreme Court appointment, won the White House in 2016 and placed their own conservative justice on the Court once Trump became president.

            Meanwhile, the Democrats continued to cozy up to Wall Street and their Big Money special interests rather than provide programs that would be most beneficial to the American people. That was the case even with Obamacare. While the program did extend healthcare to millions of previously uncovered Americans, it failed to offer a ‘public option,’ which would have helped keep consumers’ costs down. Instead of fighting for an alternative choice to compete with the insurance industry, Obama and Congressional Democrats sided with the private insurers and excluded the public option from the legislation.

            Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign further demonstrated where the Democrats’ loyalties lie. Clinton attended numerous gatherings hosted by her Big Money donors while failing to address the pressing concerns of blue-collar workers. But for the groundswell of support for Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election, the Democratic Party platform would not have focused on those issues either. Nevertheless, Clinton refused to endorse reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act and other strong Wall Street regulations, much to the delight of her wealthiest supporters.

            Trump and the Republican Party are also tied to Big Money, probably even more so. Despite his campaign promises to the contrary, Trump has not drained the Washington swamp. In fact, he has enlarged it by filling his cabinet with billionaires, who, like him, are more interested in profiting personally from their positions than they are in enhancing the public good. Take Steve Mnuchin, for example, one of several wealthy former Goldman Sachs executives now in Trump’s Cabinet. During the 2008 financial crisis, Mnuchin chaired OneWest Bank, which used fabricated and “robo-signed” documents to secure evictions, and routinely dispossessed the homes of senior citizens and people of color.6

            As Treasury Secretary, Mnuchin helped draft Trump’s new tax plan. Under this scheme, taxes will go up for many families that are just scraping by while the rich benefit. These tax increases will not pay for health care, food, or housing, but will provide the basis for lowering taxes on the wealthy, resulting in the richest one percent of families in the U.S., including Mnuchin’s, receiving an increase in income of 8.5 percent after taxes.7 This is just one of many giveaways for corporations and multimillionaires offered in the Republicans’ tax plan.

            Is there any way to stop this moral free-fall in American politics? Throughout our history Americans have risen up in mass movements — be it for women’s suffrage, labor, the environment or LBGTQ rights — and successfully demanded a reformation of our country’s values and priorities. Isn’t it time we do it again in the name of fairness and economic justice for all Americans?

Bruce Berlin is the president of New Mexicans for Money Out of Politics (nmmop.org) and the author of Breaking Big Money’s Grip on America.

1 See http://swampland.time.com/2012/08/23/the-party-of-no-new-details-on-the-gop-plot-to-obstruct-obama/.

2 See http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/73971-obamas-first-year-yields-few-results-in-drive-for-bipartisanship.

3 See http://boston.cbslocal.com/2013/11/13/romneycare-vs-obamacare-key-similarities-differences/.

4 See http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/secret-and-lies-of-the-bailout-20130104.

5 See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/09/barack-obama-legacy-presidency.

6 See https://newrepublic.com/article/133368/donald-trumps-finance-chair-anti-populist-hell.

7 See https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/10/03/lets-stop-gops-biggest-grift-all.

 

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It’s All About the Money

In case you were wondering why my blog has been silent for the last month or so, I recently returned from a long, but rewarding, four-week, cross-country journey from Santa Fe to New York to attend my daughter’s college graduation, the 50th wedding anniversary party of old friends and several other events along the way. But now that I’m back, I intend to write at least one, hopefully two, blogs a week on the challenging issues we Americans face in 2017.

 

While a great deal has transpired in the last month, nothing was more troubling than Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. At the same time, however, this reckless, ill-conceived move may have a silver lining, which we will address in a few moments.

 

First, let’s get to the heart of the matter: It’s all about the money. While Trump claims that the Paris agreement was bad for American workers, it appears that it was the financial influence of the oil, gas and coal industries that won the day. On May 25, 22 Republican senators, led by Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo), signed a letter to Trump urging him “to make a clean break from the Paris agreement.” The letter argued that the Paris deal threatened Trump’s efforts to rescind the clean power plan, an Obama-era set of regulations and guidelines that include emissions caps and other rules deemed onerous by the fossil fuel industries.

 

What the letter did not address is the close alignment of these senators with those industries. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), the 22 signatories had received over $10 million in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industries since 2012. Trump himself collected over $900 thousand in contributions from these same sources during his 2016 campaign. (Over the course of his political career, Inhofe alone has received over $1.8 million in contributions from oil and gas concerns.) Moreover, CRP found that visible donations to Republicans, the party of climate change deniers, from the extractive industries exceeded donations to Democrats in the 2016 election cycle by a ratio of 15-to-1. With this kind of financial persuasion, could there be any doubt thatTrump would decide to withdraw from the Paris agreement?

 

Now for the silver lining. Trump’s decision with the backing of many Congressional Republicans will only further energize the opposition to his administration and its inhumane policies. The Climate Change movement is strong and growing. A clear and striking line has now been drawn between the Republican supporters of the polluting fuel industries and the millions of Americans who want to protect their families and our planet from the disastrous consequences of climate change. The movement now has a very powerful argument against Republican climate change deniers in the 2018 elections and Trump in 2020: It’s all about the money.

 

America’s Political System Thrives on Corruption

            Big Money has a stranglehold on our country’s political system that is destroying our democracy. Today in Washington and in our state capitals too often Big Money calls the shots. Moreover, this problem is not a partisan issue. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle as well as presidential administrations of both parties are frequently guilty of unduly favoring the desires of their Big Money donors over the needs of their constituents. The truth is, we have a system that thrives on corruption, and it’s getting worse all the time.

            While Donald Trump appears to have taken public corruption to a whole new level, by no means did it begin with him. Recent American history is full of examples. For instance, in 2002 Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Republican from Louisiana and then Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, drafted the Medicare prescription drug bill, which created Medicare’s prescription drug benefit. In his final Congressional election for Congress that same year, Tauzin received close to $300,000 in campaign contributions from health professionals, drug makers and other health products companies. The bill Tauzin drafted in 2003 followed the industry’s desires. It steered clear of price controls and forbade our government, the largest purchaser of prescription drugs, from negotiating with drug manufacturers to secure lower prices for Medicare beneficiaries, which is why today we still pay the highest prices in the world for our prescription medicines.

            But, that’s not all. The year after Tauzin drafted the Medicare drug benefit act, he left Congress and went through the revolving door between government and K Street, where a great many lobbyists work, and was hired by the drug industry. PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbying arm, rewarded Tauzin for writing the drug bill to its liking by hiring him as its president with a salary of approximately $2 million a year.

            Tauzin’s payoff would be unbelievable except for the fact that that is the way Washington actually functions. Retiring from Congress and becoming a lobbyist for a much heftier salary is a fairly common practice. According to one study, 42% of House members and 50% of senators become lobbyists when they leave office. Not only do they make a lot more money when they “retire,” so to speak, but also they automatically have built-in access to members of Congress, having worked with many of them when they themselves were in office. You might say many of our representatives, with the help of corporate America, have made corrupting their public service standard operating procedure.

            A few years later, the Great Recession of 2008 struck our nation. Millions of innocent people lost their homes and/or jobs when the economy crashed. Though the economic disaster was mostly due to the unscrupulous and fraudulent practices of Wall Street’s big banks, the Obama administration allowed practically all of those bankers to get off scot-free. Could the facts that some of Obama’s biggest donors during his 2008 campaign were Wall Street banks, and that he appointed a number of Goldman Sachs people, like Larry Summers, Gene Sperling and Rahm Emanuel, to important positions in his administration have had something to do with his failure to hold the bankers accountable?

            In addition, despite the fact that the TARP legislation (Troubled Asset Relief Program) included instructions to use a portion of the funds to prevent the foreclosure of people’s homes, President Obama not only used little or none of it to assist those distressed homeowners, but he also refused to extract foreclosure relief measures from our nation’s biggest banks in return for the huge bailout they received. Was neither prosecuting the big bankers nor extracting foreclosure relief from them Obama’s way of paying back Wall Street for their helping him win the White House?

            Of course, Obama’s was not the first Democratic administration to look out for Wall Street at the expense of the American people. In the 1990s, Robert Rubin served as Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration. A former Goldman Sachs co-chairman, Rubin used his influential position to gain repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated investment banking from commercial banking since the days of FDR, and had thus protected ordinary Americans’ bank deposits from being wagered by investment bankers in the risky trading of future derivative swaps and other exotic, often fraudulent securities. Rather than protecting the interests of average American investors and homeowners, Secretary Rubin’s efforts supported his Wall Street friends. Repealing Glass-Steagall allowed the Big Banks to gamble with depositors’ money. Consequently, to a great degree, we have Pres. Clinton, Rubin and his bank buddies to thank for the crash of the housing market and the Great Recession of 2008. Even today, many Americans are still struggling to recover while the big bankers are doing better than ever.

            Now President Trump and his billionaire Republican friends are running our government. Given all the prior corrupting influence of Big Money in Washington, it’s quite likely that their financial interests will also play a significant role in how our nation’s policies are determined. Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State and former head of Exxon Mobil, and Steve Mnuchin, the recently appointed Secretary of the Treasury who previously worked for Goldman Sachs, are just two members of Trump’s cabinet whose policy decisions may very well be swayed by their private financial affairs.

            As for Trump himself, it’s all about the money. He reportedly was offered up to a 19% stake in Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, in return for his lifting the sanctions imposed on Russia by Pres. Obama. Subsequently, a similar portion of Rosneft was sold to a mysterious partnership partly owned by a shadowy company in the Cayman Islands, the ownership of which is unknown, according to Reuters. And then the sanctions were, in fact, relaxed.

            Moreover, last month the Chinese government granted President Trump and his business valuable trademark protection for the use of the Trump name in the construction industry, something he had been seeking for more than a decade. While Trump had fought unsuccessfully in Chinese courts for years for control of the trademark, in November, soon after the election, China awarded the trademark to the Trump Organization.

            And, yet another example of Trump’s corruption of the presidency is his pay-to-play scheme at his private, Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach resort. Soon after he became president, Trump doubled its initiation fee to $200,000. For Trump, the presidency is all about using it for his personal gain. The question is: How long will the American people put up with all this corruption?

            Bruce Berlin is the state coordinator of New Mexicans for Money Out of Politics and the author of Breaking Big Money’s Grip on America. See his website at www.breakingbigmoneysgrip.com.

 

The Trust Issue: Hillary and the TPP

First she was for it as Sec. of State. In fact, Sec. Clinton was a strong proponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. But then, candidate Clinton came out against the TPP. She reversed her position when she observed how her primary campaign rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, had generated a great deal of support due to his opposition to the TPP and other free trade pacts that harmed American workers.

While Clinton still maintains she is against the TPP, her surrogates on the Democratic Party platform committee just blocked an amendment to the platform that would have stated formal opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These are people Clinton appointed to the committee. It appears that either Clinton cannot control her own appointees, which does not seem likely; or, she is not willing to fight for own position on the TPP, which indicates her opposition is weak in contrast to her public statements. In either case, is this the kind of leadership we want in our president?

To be blunt about it: Can we trust Hillary Clinton when she takes a stand on issues important to America’s workforce?

Clinton knows that the majority of Democrats, in Congress and around the country, oppose the TPP. Moreover, she understands that her party’s failure to strongly reject it will hand the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who opposes the deal, a political advantage with working Americans who the Democrats claim to represent. As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) argued recently, “If Clinton’s representatives on the full, 187-member platform committee in Orlando once again keep the Democratic Party from opposing the TPP, her responsibility for that outcome will be clear….”

 

What if Hillary came clean?

This story about Hillary and Bill Clinton’s Foundation taking money from foreign governments while Hillary was Sec. of State is gaining steam.  Did she make decisions at the State Dept. that assisted those governments?  If so, what was the connection between the donations and the decisions?   And, why did all those emails get deleted?  Is there a connection?

Of course, Hillary is denying everything.  But, if she really wanted to serve her country, she could come clean (if there was a connection, and I’m guessing there just may have been.) and explain that this is just the way our government works.  Then, she could start calling out all the examples of Democratic and Republican Senators and Representatives, and Obama and George Bush and Bill Clinton, who have done favors or voted a certain way, to assist Wall Street bankers, the healthcare industry, military contractors, and on and on, and gotten big campaign contributions in return.

Maybe I’m dreaming, but Hillary served in the Senate, lived in the White House and wants to be President.  She would be very credible on all this.  She could really be an American hero and help clean up our corrupt government.  But, then, she wouldn’t become president, would she?  Guess I am dreaming.