Hostile Takeover: The Corruption of Politics in the United States
David Sirota is a campaign strategist, political operative and writer, and author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money & Corruption Conquered Our Government—and How We Take It Back. He has worked for Vermont Representative Bernie Sanders and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, among others. Sirota is senior editor at In These Times, a regular contributor to The Nation and a regular guest on the Al Franken radio show. He is co-chair of the Progressive Legislative Action Network.
Multinational Monitor: What is the significance of Jack Abramoff?
David Sirota: Jack Abramoff raises the issue of corruption from an intangible issue to one that has a face.
I don’t think that the importance of Jack Abramoff is that he did something so much worse than what happens in many ways on a daily basis in Congress.
Obviously what he did was illegal and awful, but what he did is replicated in all sorts of different ways on Capitol Hill, oftentimes in ways that are legal.
The silver lining of Jack Abramoff is that he has enabled the general public to be better educated about how deep the pay-to-play culture goes in Washington.
MM: Do people really care about the corruption issue?
Sirota: When you poll the word “corruption,” it does not poll very high. That’s because people tend to think that both parties are corrupt; in fact, they tend to think that politics itself is corrupt—and they’re not wrong, unfortunately.
But I think that people care, when corruption is connected to the challenges they face on a daily basis. When you connect the fact that the oil industry gave hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions and was allowed to write the energy bill with the fact that people are paying $3 for gasoline, then I think people care about corruption.
Similarly, when you connect the fact that we are paying the highest prices for medicines in the world with the fact that the drug industry is writing our Medicare bills and our prescription drug laws, then I think suddenly people really do care. And they should.
What the Democrats haven’t done—what neither party has done—is connect corruption to the issues of the day. When you see stories in the mainstream press that say, “Oh, the public doesn’t care about corruption,” that’s not true. The public doesn’t care about corruption in a vacuum. I think the public cares very much about corruption when the case is made—and it is an accurate case—that corruption affects their daily lives in all sorts of ways.
MM: Are all politicians corrupt?
Sirota: No, absolutely not.
Let me step back and say this: I don’t think all of the politicians in Washington are corrupt. I think almost all of them are in a corrupt system. And that’s not their fault—or at least that’s not all of their fault.
To run for federal office, you basically have to be good at shaking down big money interests for cash, because the system requires you to raise your money from private sources. That’s essentially pay-to-play built right into the system.
There are Members of Congress that have managed to raise more money from sources that don’t expect legislative favors than from those interests that do expect legislative favors. The Internet is largely a fundraising base of people who don’t expect specific legislative favors—which would only improve their personal livelihoods—in exchange for their donation. Progressive Internet donors want candidates who will support a progressive agenda, but they are not looking for a federal contract, if you will.
I think that there are good people in Congress who are able to fight against the hostile takeover of our government even though they are in a corrupt system.
But we have to understand that corruption is hard-wired into the system. Any system that forces candidates—at least those who are not multimillionaires willing to invest millions in their own campaigns—to raise most or all of their campaign money from private interests is one that is going to have corruption hard-wired into it.
MM: Are the Democrats making a smart strategic move by trying to run on the slogan of opposing a “culture of corruption?”
Sirota: I think that they make a mistake only if they don’t show voters that they are serious about confronting that culture.
If the Democrats are going to make a big issue out of the culture of corruption and in the process propose serious reforms that would clean up that culture, then that’s a great idea.
But what I see right now is the Democratic Party talking a lot about the culture of corruption but not doing a lot to address and confront the culture of corruption. I don’t see them talking about serious lobbying and ethics reform. I don’t see them talking about serious campaign finance reform and public financing of elections.
I think that they endanger themselves unnecessarily by running on the theme of culture of corruption if they are not going to be serious about it. Then the voters are going to see through it.
MM: What is corruption?
Sirota: A corrupt lawmaker is one who behaves at odds with the interests of their constituents in order to reward the interests, and particularly the big money interests, that fund their campaign. It is basically campaign contributions going in and specific legislative favors going out. That is corruption.
MM: So is there any difference between, say, what Duke Cunningham did, and the normal course of business in Washington?
Sirota: Other than that he broke the law (and the laws are very weak), not really.
There’s one other difference. Duke Cunningham is a bit more of a personal corruption story rather than a public corruption one. He reaped personal rewards—the Rolls-Royces, the yachts.
There certainly is personal benefit from corruption going on, but the plague right now is public corruption.
This kind of public corruption is expressed in all sorts of ways. Sometimes, it’s legislative favors. My book asserts that it is not just legislative favors, it is also dishonest storylines—storylines that distort the political debate to make the public believe that corrupt public policy is actually being done in the public interest. A Congressman who will say that a flat tax is good for most Americans—that’s a version of corruption. That Congressman is regurgitating a lie designed to make it seem as if a policy that will reward big money interests is actually a policy that will help ordinary people. The regurgitation of that storyline is a form of corruption.
MM: You start the book by focusing on taxes. Why did you pick that as the opening salvo?
Sirota: It is an issue that obviously affects everybody. Everybody in some way or other pays taxes—even those who don’t pay income tax, pay payroll and sales taxes. It is an issue where corruption has been very pronounced. And it is an issue where we’ve been led to believe that one party is pro-taxpayer, in terms of cutting taxes, and the other party isn’t. In fact, both parties in many ways have used their power to create and preserve a tax structure that serves corrupt ends.
MM: In summary fashion, how would you say tax policy is made?
The tax system is a means to raise money for government programs. More and more, that money is coming from ordinary people and less and less from those who have the most to spare—the super-wealthy. The tax burden is shifting dramatically to the middle class and working class from the super-wealthy.
The issue for big money interests is how to make sure that revenue is being raised increasingly from the vast majority of Americans who have not bought a seat at the political table. We see that in the efforts to gut the estate tax, in the effort to flatten the income tax, and in the brazen corporate tax giveaways. v It goes from bad to worse when you go from looking at personal income tax policy to corporate tax policy. Corporate tax policy is really the result of a feeding frenzy of pigs at the trough. A corporate tax bill comes up, and every lobbyist in Washington is looking at how to get a loophole in there.
In my book, I quote a lobbyist who said something like, “It’s a sign of your manhood to see how big a loophole you can get written into a corporate tax bill.”
MM: What would be your top three worst cases of corruption over the last five or ten years?
Sirota: It’s hard to rank them all.
I would say that the bankruptcy bill was one of them, because it was out in the open. One of the ways that you can measure how deep corruption goes is to look at how open everybody is about it. The bankruptcy bill was a case where there was very little if any effort to pretend that this wasn’t a bill written by and for the credit card industry to screw over more and more ordinary citizens. So for the brazenness I would say the bankruptcy bill.
The successful effort to prevent government regulators from negotiating lower-price prescription drugs in the Medicare bill would be another. That might not have been the biggest ripoff, but it is such a sharp example. Under this provision, our lawmakers actually prohibited our government from doing what almost every business does, which is to negotiate lower prices for bulk purchases from the pharmaceutical industry.
A third case would be the Bush administration’s tax policy, in its many manifestations: the Bush tax cuts, the effort to repeal the estate tax, the recent bill that cuts corporate taxes—all happening at a time of war and deficit. You either would have to be insane to pursue a policy like that or totally bought off, and I don’t think these people are insane—at least in terms of not knowing what they are doing.
I think the administration and Members of Congress are pursuing these policies for a very rational reason—they are paying off the people who financed their political campaigns.
MM: Most people think that actions matter more than words, but you say that the key element of corruption is that business buys the rhetoric of politicians. What does that mean?
Sirota: Politicians do not come out and say, “We are selling you out, America.” They say, “These policies are being done in the interest of ordinary Americans.” Which is just not true. I just gave you three examples where it is clearly not true.
What we see is that corruption is not just vote buying and the bribery, but it is the buying of the way politicians talk to their constituents. It is the buying of the political discourse in this country. As a result, bad or corrupt policies are justified and policies that represent the interests of ordinary Americans are marginalized and thus not even talked about.
Healthcare is a great example. Consistently, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the country say they want a universal, government-sponsored healthcare system, even if it requires tax increases. A recent poll showed that even half of the hard-core Republican base supports universal, government-sponsored healthcare paid for by tax increases. Yet that is rarely if ever talked about in our political debates. The silence on that issue by the political establishment, that marginalization of what the clear majority of the public wants — that is corruption.
MM: You list a whole variety of solutions to problems you raise in Hostile Takeover. Some of them may be new ideas, but most of them aren’t. What does it mean that there are all of these solutions out there, but they are not being implemented?
Sirota: I think it means that the system is broken. I think it means that the very terms of the political debate are bought and sold. Politicians continue to claim that many of the solutions that I list in the book are too simple, and that the core, fundamental economic issues that we are facing right now are supposedly super complex. That is a veneer to justify continuing down a path that forces most Americans to pay higher taxes, work for lower wages, watch their pensions get slashed, watch their union rights be infringed upon, etc. The solution to the economic problems of this country are not simple, but they are not that complex, either. We are led to believe that the challenges we face are just too big for the average person to understand, when in fact they aren’t.
My book tries to show ordinary folks that the actual policy solutions are fairly simple — and then to show why those policy solutions aren’t being implemented, and how we can create a political dynamic in this country where those kinds of solutions would not only not be marginalized, but would be central to the political debate.
MM: You encourage people to focus locally, but isn’t corruption actually worse, generally, at the local and state level?
Sirota: I don’t agree with that. Let’s put it this way: there are very good examples of corruption at the local level, but I think that the hostile takeover of the government is far less pronounced as you go down the political food chain.
Simply by virtue of the fact that there are however many thousand state legislators versus 535 members of Congress, there is a larger playing field at the state and local and municipal level. It’s harder to control that big of an arena all at once. Sometimes that goes both ways. If there is more of a vacuum, then obviously big money interests can come in and corrupt the system even further then they do in Washington, D.C. But, having watched the Montana legislature and some other smaller legislatures, you get the sense that ordinary people can have real power.
It’s just harder to buy local elections in many cases because at the end of the day, we still live in a country where votes actually matter. I know there is a whole debate about the integrity of the electoral process, but, by and large, votes still decide elections. In a big state, a politician can’t meet 20 million people, so then money starts deciding which voters get contacted and which don’t. But in smaller states and in smaller races in big states, politicians can still meet and interact with all of the voters. Then, no matter how much money is spent, the voters still have control. We saw that here in Montana in the Democratic primary. The better-funded candidate at the end of the day only got 35 percent of the vote, while the less-funded candidate got 61 percent of the vote. That happened in part because the candidates could actually go talk to every single voter who voted in that election. In such an election, the playing field is less susceptible to the hostile takeover. That means that when people get involved locally, they can have a far greater impact than when trying to get involved exclusively in national politics.
MM: Turning back to Washington, are the lobbying reforms being considered post-Abramoff consequential in any way?
Sirota: They’re consequential in that they need to be done. Cutting off lobbyists’ ability to pay for meals for members of Congress, that’s important. Travel reform, that’s important. Disclosure of who submitted earmarks is definitely important. Cutting off the revolving door between Congress and lobbying is important; we are doing a ballot initiative out here to stop legislators from immediately becoming lobbyists. All of that is very important.
But if you really want to get to the root of the problem, it is that lobbyists are able to wield power because their words have campaign contributions behind them. We are not really going to attack the system of corruption until we get to cutting off that power, which is derived through our essentially pay-to-play campaign finance system.
I have tried to encourage as many Democratic officials and lawmakers as I know to really get serious about fundamental campaign finance reform. The public is ready for the public financing of elections. We’ve never had a better time for the Democratic Party to make this case. There have been really good Democrats in Congress and at the state level that are pushing this. But the fact that the Democratic Party as a whole has not taken up this call really speaks volumes about how bipartisan the hostile takeover of our government is.
© Multinational Monitor May/June 2006