Political Goings On Tuesday| In a Outraged State of Mind

March 4, 2008

To paraphrase Billy Joel, Americans are in an outraged state of mind.

We’re angry. We’re fed up with the way most institutions in our society operate, and we’re appalled at the pervasive culture of corruption that’s becoming more and more evident in all levels of government, in major corporations, and even in humanitarian organizations.

We’re offended by the unmistakable bias of the mainstream media. Even more, we’re sick of the way Washington insiders spin every political misstep for public consumption, while they scratch each other’s backs to maintain the status quo.

We’re tired of watching special interests use their money and power to distort the legislative process and buy elections. Finally, we’re infuriated to see that such behavior has become so de rigueur that we’re no longer shocked by it. We actually expect it!

All of this needs to change. Immediately.

Wherever we look, in every sector of our economy, at every level of government, and throughout the world of politics, it’s obvious that the prevailing policies are deliberately designed to benefit an elite few at the expense of the rest of us. This systematic corruption has been going on for too long. It is time to turn our democracy back into what it was intended to be: no longer a government of the pampered congressmen, paid for by the lobbyists who pervert the process for the benefit of greedy special interests, but a government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

How many times have you heard me say that.

It’s time for a transformation – a change we have the power to accomplish.

We’re already seen the beginnings of such a change. That’s why American voters sent a cleat message in the 2006 midterm elections. Turning Congress on it’s head, we defeated thirty incumbent Republican members of the House of Representatives and six GOP senators, ending the 10-year Republican majority in both houses. Furious about the never-ending ethical scandals, the flagrant self-dealing, the unproductive “do-nothing” Congress, voters desperately sought a clean slate – and they got it.

Unfortunately, new faces don’t necessarily mean new rules. If we don’t follow this shake-up with serious institutional reforms, we won’t have much of a revolution. Shifting players alone won’t be enough to transform the system. And it’s the system that needs a major overhaul. After all, the Democrats are hardly morally superior to the Republicans. They’ve had their own scandals, and they’re equally beholden to their own particular special interests. The American people didn’t choose them because of some positive belief in their message. We chose them because we were tired of the same old gang of thieves.

No, this recent election wasn’t a mandate for the Democratic Party. It was a mandate for correction and reform. As they have often said before, the American people voted for a slate of non-incumbents, and in this case that meant non-Republicans. (We would have done the same had the players been reversed).

It was definitely time for a change. If history is any guide, however, once the outsiders take power, they tend to forget about the very reforms that they promised. So now it’s up to us, the voters, to keep the pressure on – to force both Democrats and Republicans to clean up the Congress and reform our business community and public organizations. Because we know they’re not working. They’re certainly not being held accountable. And unless we start to hold their feet to the fire by pushing the enactment of some serious ethical reforms, the 2006 election will go down in history as a sophisticated game of political musical chairs.

There are some encouraging opening signs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has forced through a series of reforms that curb some – though not most and certainly not all – of the abuses in her chamber. She has successfully induced her colleagues to ban travel and gifts from lobbyists….though congressional wives or husbands can still double-dip by going on their spouses’ campaign payrolls or working for lobbying firms. She’s required congressmen to identify the wasteful earmarked appropriations they cram into spending bills….though she hasn’t curbed the abuse by giving the president the power to veto or ignore the bloated spending amendments. Still, she has done something about the culture of congressional corruption, which is a lot more than he predecessor – Dennis Hastert – ever did.

The Senate reforms have led to serious changes, too. All corporate – and lobbyist – sponsored travel is now prohibited, as is the use of corporate jets by senators under any circumstances. In the House, new rules simply require members to reimburse the corporate sponsor for the actual cost of the flights, not just the first-class airfare.

These new rules are a step in the right direction, but we deserve much more. Before Congress can restore confidence in the integrity of its legislative actions, it must earn the trust of the American people.

And that’s no small job.

We’re skeptical. We’ve learned too often that corporations are cooking their books, humanitarian agencies are on the take, and congressmen are taking bribes and secretly increasing their net worth. We’ve felt swindled too often after watching our investments dwindle while corporate executives go around stealing everything that isn’t nailed down. We’ve grown resentful that they get away with it – and if they do get caught all they receive is a little slap on the wrist. And we want it to stop.

We’re revolted by the endless daily barrage of news stories chronicling fraud and abuse among our leaders. We cringed to learn the United Nations looked the other way while Saddam Hussein stole almost $2 billion of humanitarian aid funds designated for emergency food and medicine the Iraqi people in the UN’s so-called ‘Oil-for-Food Program’. And we bristled to learn that the UN ignored Saddam’s bribery of Russia and France to buy their support against the United States in the Security Council. Remember France’s then ambassador to the UN, Dominique de Villepin, and the impassioned speech he made against intervention in Iraq? Turns out, he wasn’t motivated by any fiery socialist idealism. No, his ulterior motive was calculated capitalist realism. France had become Iraq’s largest trading partner and de Villepin didn’t want to jeopardize that cozy and lucrative relationship. Moreover, Saddam had given several French politicians – including Chirac’s former interior minister, Charles Pasqua vouchers to sell Iraqi oil. Unfortunately for the French and Russians involved, Saddam also kept a ledger of these little favors – a document that later revealed the depths of these sneaky deals.

RUSSIA, FRANCE, SADDAM, AND THE UN

What France Got:

  • Vouchers for 11 million barrels of oil to former interior minister Charles Pasqua (each voucher for 10 million gallons could generate between $1 and $3.5 million in revenue)
  • Rights to develop a rich Iraqi oil field
  • Payoffs to top French politicians, including diplomat Jean-Bernard Merimee (who holds the official title of ‘ambassador for life’), who took $156,000 in bribes to renovate his Moroccan vacation home while he served as a ‘Special Adviser’ to UN secretary general Kofi Annan

What Russia Got:

  • Vouchers for 55 million barrels of oil to the Russian foreign minister
  • Vouchers for 53 million barrels to Vladimir Zhirinovsky, former Russian presidential candidate and deputy speaker of the Duma (the Russian equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives)
  • Vouchers for 110 million barrels to the Russian Communist Party
  • Vouchers to a former chief of staff to Valdimir Putin
  • Vouchers to the Russian Orthodox Church
  • Rights to another Iraqi oil field

What the UN Got:

  • $1.9 billion in cash from the Iraqi oil sales.
  • 13 million barrels of oil to the head of the Oil-for-Food Program, Benon Sevan later indicted on bribery charges

What Kojo Annan, Son of the Un Secretary General, Got:

  • $2,500 per month for four years after he left the employment of a Geneva company that got an Oil-for-Food contract while he worked for them

What Saddam Got:

  • More than $12 billion in cash for his personal use.

What the Iraqi People Got:

  • Bupkiss. After all the bribery, graft, and outright theft, all the got were the leftovers.

And that’d not all. During the entire time the UN officials were supervising the Oil-for-Food Program, they never even noticed when Saddam shook down another $1.8 billion from corporations and government officials who were bidding to provide the food and other necessities to his starving citizens. It’s especially hard to understand why UN officials did nothing about their own employees who were on the take – or why Secretary-General Annan had no idea that his own son was riding the profitable bandwagon of surreptitious payoffs.

During the past several years, we’ve witnessed the shocking bankruptcy of Enron and WorldCom. With respective assets of $64 billion and $104 billion at the time of the bankruptcy filings, the two companies had been among the largest and most successful corporations in the United States. Because of the greed and fraud that permeated the highest echelons of these international businesses, thousands of hardworking men and women lost their jobs, their pensions, and their hopes for the future. Yet so far only a handful of the guilty executives who bled those companies dry have been prosecuted and convicted for those crimes, which changed the lives of so many.

And it’s not just public corporations that are the problem. Our government agencies has been just as crooked. Look at Fannie Mae, the federally charged organization owned by private shareholders that purchases mortgages in order to increase the availability of mortgage funding for low and middle-income housing. In 1998, Fannie Mae failed to report more than $200 million in expenses; from 2000 to 2003, it overstated its earnings by more than $12 billion. Why did they engage in this financial trickery? Because its top executives’ compensation packages – that is, their excessive bonuses – we tied to the company’s performance. No profits, no bonuses. So the only way the folks in charge of Fannie Mae could line their pockets with obscene bonuses was to make the bottom line look great.

The Amazing Democratic Gravy Train at Fannie Mae

  • Franklin Raines, Fannie Mae’s CEO, collected $90 million in bonuses and salary
  • Hundreds of liberal nonprofits were given $35 million a year in grants

Raines, Bill Clinton’s former budget director, was forced to resign, but he kept his $90 million; now he ekes out a meager living on a $114,000 monthly pension, part of a total retirement package estimated at $25 million. According to the Rocky Mountain News, former Clinton assistant attorney general Jamie Gorelick got more that $25 million in compensation, including $15 million in bonuses. Jim Johnson, a Democratic insider who served as Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign manager, received $966,000 in salary and a $1,932,000 bonus in 1998.

According to federal regulators, however, if Fannie Mae had been keeping accurate accounting, it would have paid no bonuses that year.

Congress is in on the game, too. And it’s not just one party that’s guilty. Fairly recently, Democrats and Republicans alike have been caught in major corporation scandals. One member of Congress was actually caught hiding $90,000 in cash in his home freezer (giving new meaning to the term frozen assets) and was apparently taped by the FBI as he accepted a $100,000 bribe. Louisiana Democratic congressman William Jefferson (I almost wrote Clinton) allegedly demanded cash payments and other favors for himself and his family in exchange for using his congressional position to help advance an African business scheme. After finding the frozen dollars, the Justice Department executed a search warrant on his congressional office. Republican and Democratic House leaders were furious, castigating the FBI for daring to search a congressman’s office and screaming about the separation of powers. Apparently, they view the House of Representatives as an asylum for criminal activity beyond the reach of the United States Department of Justice. Former House speaker Dennis Hastert and his successor, Nancy Pelosi, both righteously claimed that the documents were unconstitutionally seized from Jefferson’s office and demanded their immediate return. Now, isn’t that outrageous? Shouldn’t our congressional leaders want to investigate alleged criminal activity in their midst, rather than closing ranks around a suspect? (This rather reminds me of the Steven Segal movie “Hard to Kill”, wherein Steven confronts this crooked senator – and as the police start putting him in hand cuffs, he screams “You can’t arrest me, I’m a Senator”).

This bunker mentality in defense of institutional prerogative is common to both parties, and it may grow as more members come under criminal investigation.

And there are plenty to choose from. Former House Majority leader, Tom Delay (R-Texas) resigned after he was indicted on money laundering charges and implicated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, one of the most amazing examples of special-interest influence peddling in the history of our nation. Former Republican congressman Duke Cunningham (R-Calif) went to prison last year for accepting bribes from government contractors. As he was sentenced, he boldly named other members of Congress he claimed had also take bribes! Ohio Republican congressman Bob Ney resigned in 2006 after pleading guilty to making false statements and accepting trips, meals, airline tickets, cash, and gaming chips in exchange for pushing legislation for Abramoff’s clients. And Congressman Mark Foley (R-Fla) also resigned after details exposed his relationship with male high school students serving as House pages.

Stay tuned…….

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