Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker
is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com.
He is also the founder of the Real News
Project , a new not-for-profit
investigative journalism outlet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The intense focus on individual cases of
corruption on Capitol Hill, such as those involving
Representatives William Jefferson, D-La., and Randy
Cunningham, R-Calif., masks the broader problem of an
institution deeply compromised by money.
The triumph of the current culture of corruption can be
traced to the actions of the Republican Congressional
leadership, who sold off the decision-making apparatus to the
highest bidders in virtually all areas of governance. From
Newt Gingrich’s Trojan horse “Contract with America” to Tom
DeLay’s “K Street Project,” the Republicans have made
corporations a fourth branch of government, with the power to
write and block regulations and legislation.
It follows that in upcoming elections the corruption issue
should be the single most potent weapon in the Democratic
arsenal. But the Democrats can’t make full use of it for a
simple reason. Though they publicly bemoan the “culture of
corruption,” Democratic leaders and operatives privately
acknowledge that they see no means of regaining power without
cozying up to the real “special interests.” And so, albeit to
a lesser extent, the would-be reformers find themselves
fighting the quicksand of corporate entanglements.
Though they profess a need for campaign finance reform and
other policies that prioritize the common good, many key
figures in the Democratic pantheon personally earn a living
helping corporate interests advance the very causes that their
party publicly deplores.
A new study by the Real News Project, a
nonprofit noncommercial investigative reporting entity I
founded, shows the extent of the problem. Examining 25 key
Democratic consultants, advertising and public relations execs
and lobbyists, we discovered a veritable witches’ brew of
These include helping Wal-Mart improve its image rather
than addressing the practices that created the image problems
in the first place, staving off accountability for companies
involved with global warming and asbestos, squeezing the
consumer even further on credit policy, promoting wasteful
military/homeland security boondoggles, fighting off universal
health insurance and affordable prescription drugs and much
more. Democrats on K Street are increasingly partnered in
their influence-peddling and spin machine firms with
Jack Quinn, who served as Vice President Gore’s chief of
staff, and later as counsel to President Clinton, is a
textbook example. After serving at the top of the Clinton-Gore
administration, in January 2000 he left what was still a
Democratic White House and formed Quinn Gillespie with GOP
operative Ed Gillespie. This firm was among the pioneers of
the one-stop-shopping approach that has since swept
Quinn helped secure a controversial pardon for the fugitive
financier Marc Rich as Clinton was leaving office. Gillespie
periodically leaves the firm to help the GOP; from July 2003
to January 2005 he headed the Republican National Committee.
In May 2005, Gillespie sponsored a table at a Tom DeLay
tribute dinner at the height of DeLay’s ethical and legal
troubles, sitting with DeLay at the head table. He also
shepherded the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito, and
is treasurer of George Allen’s presidential PAC.
But the firm’s regular client list is what is most
troubling, starting with the infamous Enron. It continues with
the American Petroleum Institute, which tried to lift the
federal ban on offshore drilling on the Outer Continental
Shelf and Alaska, and fought a proposal to raise taxes for oil
companies by changing the way profits are calculated. The
Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care opposed a proposed
Medicare reform that would have cut $1.5 billion in add-on
payments to nursing homes—and was indicted in late 2004 for a
$100,000 illegal contribution to DeLay's PAC. The Partnership
to Protect Consumer Credit wants to preempt tougher state and
local laws designed to protect consumers, and the
International Dairy Foods Association opposes the introduction
of more healthful dairy substitutes in school lunches.
Then comes the “Ax the Double Tax" coalition, which sought
to eliminate the individual tax on corporate dividends and has
worked on legislation that would allow Hewlett-Packard to
repatriate profits from foreign subsidiaries at a lower tax
rate; and Bank of America, which fought stricter consumer
data-protection legislation proposed after they suffered a big
data breach. All use Quinn Gillespie to push their agenda on
Jack Quinn is hardly unique. Many of the Democratic
consultants cited in the Real News Project report worked in
the Clinton-Gore administration and continue to have close
ties to leading Democrats, from Hillary Clinton to Harry Reid.
They are likely to help whoever gets the Democratic nomination
set her or his platform and rhetoric.
If the Democrats are serious about presenting the public
with a meaningful alternative in 2006 and 2008, they have to
pull themselves off the morphine drip of corporate money. In
the long run, this can only be accomplished through reform of
contribution laws (and related rulings by judges appointed by
a future president who is committed to change). But in the
short run, Democrats can start by taking two steps:
They can make public the names of their top advisers and
require full disclosure of their clients and potential
conflicts of interest. And they can start seeking funding from
donors who don’t insist on a pound of flesh and who don’t see
the public interest as inimical to their own.
Most importantly, Democrats must build a contributor base of
millions of ordinary people, through Internet prospecting on a
scale as yet unseen.
Of course, the Democrats won’t be able to attract that wide
base without making a strong case that the party truly
represents the public interest. One way to do that is to talk
openly about their own K Street problem—and to boldly begin to