How do you shut a revolving door?

ANSWER: With a door-stop made of JUSTICE!

(This is the second in a series about politics that’s looking like it will be three essays long. Once again, if you’re not interested – no, you know what? You should all read this. And share it so that other people can read it too. Because – damn.)

And speaking of corruption in politics . . . two words: regulatory capture.

Two more words: revolving door.

And the final five: Lobbying in the United States.

You know that there’s a real problem when the corruption has become so common, and so tightly bound into the fabric of government, that there is a Wikipedia article about it. There are three, actually, which I’d suggest as reading – they are all linked above. And it is amazing that this is such a common and accepted situation that the articles talk about recent events, about people whose names we know – this isn’t the Teapot Dome scandal, or the robber barons of centuries past; this is Eric Holder, who left after six years as Attorney General to return to his partnership position at a law firm that represents Wall Street banks (Now you understand why no bankers have been prosecuted for the financial collapse?); this is Deepwater Horizon and the oil companies that got new permits to drill in the Gulf of Mexico only weeks after the worst ecological disaster in history; this is the very internet I am using, and SOPA, et al. This is our world, us, right now.

Regulatory capture is when a government regulatory body – like the FCC, or the SEC, or the Department of the Interior or Agriculture – is controlled by the industry it is intended to regulate. The fox not only gets into the henhouse, he puts on a red comb and declares himself the rooster. Then he puts in place a new Hen Resources policy whereby every hen must have a one-on-one meeting with the new CER(F) [Chief Executive Rooster (Fox)], out back in the woods, at night; and the hens have to bathe in barbecue sauce beforehand.

Think I’m exaggerating? Allow me to quote from the Wikipedia article on this subject:

Commodity Futures Trading Commission

In October 2010, George H. Painter, one of the two Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) administrative law judges, retired, and in the process requested that his cases not be assigned to the other judge, Bruce C. Levine.Painter wrote, “On Judge Levine’s first week on the job, nearly twenty years ago, he came into my office and stated that he had promised Wendy Gramm, then Chairwoman of the Commission, that we would never rule in a complainant’s favor,” Painter wrote. “A review of his rulings will confirm that he fulfilled his vow.” In further explaining his request, he wrote, “Judge Levine, in the cynical guise of enforcing the rules, forces pro se complainants to run a hostile procedural gauntlet until they lose hope, and either withdraw their complaint or settle for a pittance, regardless of the merits of the case.” Gramm, wife of former Senator Phil Gramm, was accused of helping Goldman Sachs, Enron and other large firms gain influence over the commodity markets. After leaving the CFTC, Wendy Gramm joined the board of Enron.

 

That’s right: the wife of a senator running a regulatory agency, corrupting a judge, and then taking a seat on the board of the company she was supposed to be regulating. There are more examples, too. Many. How about this one:

Federal Aviation Administration

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a dual-mandate both to promote aviation and to regulate its safety. A report by the Department of Transportation that found FAA managers had allowed Southwest Airlines to fly 46 airplanes in 2006 and 2007 that were overdue for safety inspections, ignoring concerns raised by inspectors. Audits of other airlines resulted in two airlines grounding hundreds of planes, causing thousands of flight cancellations. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee investigated the matter after two FAA whistleblowers, inspectors Charalambe “Bobby” Boutris and Douglas E. Peters, contacted them. Boutris said he attempted to ground Southwest after finding cracks in the fuselage, but was prevented by supervisors he said were friendly with the airline. The committee subsequently held hearings in April 2008. James Oberstar, former chairman of the committee said its investigation uncovered a pattern of regulatory abuse and widespread regulatory lapses, allowing 117 aircraft to be operated commercially although not in compliance with FAA safety rules. Oberstar said there was a “culture of coziness” between senior FAA officials and the airlines and “a systematic breakdown” in the FAA’s culture that resulted in “malfeasance, bordering on corruption.”

 

So glad I flew Southwest when I traveled this past Christmas. Or maybe you’re concerned with nuclear power? Here, this is a peach:

The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] has given a license to “every single reactor requesting one”, according to Greenpeace USA nuclear policy analyst Jim Riccio to refer to the agency approval process as a “rubber stamp”. In Vermont, ten days after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that damaged Japan’s Daiichi plant in Fukushima, the NRC approved a 20-year extension for the license of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, although the Vermont state legislature had voted overwhelmingly to deny such an extension. The Vermont plant uses the same GE Mark 1 reactor design as the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The plant had been found to be leaking radioactive materials through a network of underground pipes, which Entergy, the company running the plant, had denied under oath even existed. Representative Tony Klein, who chaired the Vermont House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said that when he asked the NRC about the pipes at a hearing in 2009, the NRC didn’t know about their existence, much less that they were leaking. On March 17, 2011, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a study critical of the NRC’s 2010 performance as a regulator. The UCS said that through the years, it had found the NRC’s enforcement of safety rules has not been “timely, consistent, or effective” and it cited 14 “near-misses” at U.S. plants in 2010 alone. Tyson Slocum, an energy expert at Public Citizen said the nuclear industry has “embedded itself in the political establishment” through “reliable friends from George Bush to Barack Obama”, that the government “has really just become cheerleaders for the industry.”

 

There’s more, too. And again, let me note: this is from a Wikipedia article. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, anything like whistle blowing or investigative journalism; this is common knowledge, stuff that is all over the news, all over the web. I got to all of this with exactly two clicks: one from my Google search to Wikipedia, and one from my first article (on “revolving door”) to the link that said “See also: regulatory capture.” These examples I have cited are just a few from the section headed “United States Examples.” (If it makes you feel better, there is also one Canadian example, two Japanese examples, and one international example. To balance the twenty-plus American examples. USA! USA!)

And speaking of the revolving door: this is the name we apply to the practice of private professionals becoming government officials, generally with power over those same industries that employed them prior to election or appointment, and government officials becoming private professionals in the industries they oversaw. This is the kind of thing where members of Congress block a bill regulating, say, Wall Street, and then leave office to get a lucrative job as an advisor on Wall Street. The most famous example is probably Dick Cheney, who “left” Halliburton to become Vice President (Got a “severance” package of $20 million, too) and then spent much of his vice presidency creating new business opportunities for Halliburton (the company builds oil fields and refineries), particularly in Iraq. But there are others: Dick (Two corrupt men named Dick? COINCIDENCE?!?) Gephardt, who was a Congressman (And a Democrat, lest anyone think I am bashing on the GOP, or everyone named Dick.) for years, is now a lobbyist; the FCC commissioner who approved the NBC/Comcast merger left the FCC four months later for a position at Comcast; the use of bovine growth hormone was approved by three employees of the Food and Drug Administration with ties to Monsanto.

Again, not investigative journalism: I Googled “Government officials from the industries they regulate” and clicked on the first link, which was to the “revolving door” article on Wikipedia.

It shocks me, to some extent, to think that anyone believes it a good idea to hire government regulators with ties to the industries they are supposed to regulate. But I get it: those people understand the industry, have ties and connections to the corporations involved; they could be very good at administering the people’s interests. And, to some extent, the interests of the industries need to be protected from heavy-handed government intervention; if they put me in charge, for instance, I’d just eliminate half a dozen major corporations entirely, which would, I guess, be bad for the economy.

Though considering what those same corporations did to the economy, and how much it affected me personally, I’m kind of willing to make that sacrifice. Then again: even if I crushed Halliburton and Monsanto and Enron and Goldman-Sachs and Exxon-Mobil and Wal-Mart beneath the heel of my jackboot, I know perfectly well that other companies would simply rise up and take their place. The lobbyists wouldn’t even be replaced: they’d just change a number in their speed-dial.

But I do get the need for a voice from the industry in the regulatory agencies. In my own small world, I think it is always best (and only rarely true) that school administrators be former teachers, with more than a couple of years of experience, in subjects more demanding than P.E. Those people understand what teachers go through, understand that the ever-increasing burden of unnecessary and even counter-productive requirements – for testing, for accountability, for record-keeping, for committee membership and meeting after meeting after meeting – is what keeps teachers from actually doing our job. It’s funny to say that government intervention is the biggest problem facing teachers in schools, but it’s true.

On the other hand: my motive for doing my job is not profit. I want to do my job well. I want administrators who understand my job not because I want their approval of my new untested pharmaceutical to go straight to market, sacrificing public safety in order to increase my bottom line; I want understanding administrators so that I can teach To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet. And my influence over those administrators, those government officials who regulate my industry, is based on exactly one thing: my status as a citizen and a teacher. That status allows me to, maybe, get a chance to speak my mind on this issue, provided I go through the efforts to put myself in front of those officials. I can, perhaps, use my eloquence, what I have of it; my reputation, if people actually like what I do; and even my soapbox, this here blog. What I can’t use is billions of dollars and a quid-pro-quo offer of a position after retirement.

Though that’s a great image. Hey, Congress, I got a deal for you: you eliminate the requirements for standardized testing in public schools, and I’ll hook you up with a position as a Teacher’s Aide in a special needs classroom. Or I can try to swing a spot as a fill-in janitor. Huh? Huh? Tempting! Tell you what: I’ll sweeten the deal with, say, $20. Which is about all I could afford in bribes. Hang on, let me see if I can do a DonorsChoose . . .

Now the question is, what do we do about this? We can’t simply ban lobbying, as tempting as that is; citizens have the right to “free speech” (Sarcastoquotes brought to you by the Citizens United decision: claiming that money is speech from sea to shining sea, and conveniently forgetting that most speech can not be used by the audience/recipients to buy yachts, and that this somewhat changes the equation. [Imagine how many readers I could get if you could trade my words for yachts?!? I would sleep on a keyboard so that when I rolled over I could make $50 from whatever words I randomly typed.]) and the right to petition their government for redress of grievances; again, my personal prejudices aside, corporations have the right to have their interests represented by the government that seeks to regulate them.

But the difference is: the companies don’t need to have their employees hired by the regulators. That is not part of “petitioning the government.” When I wanted to argue against the decisions of my local school board, I didn’t get myself appointed to that school board; I went to a public meeting and spoke in front of them. (Guess what? It didn’t work. Well, it kind of worked: they grew to fear me. The last time I spoke at a school board meeting in Oregon, they pushed me to the end of the line, allowing every other person with an opinion to speak before me. Which just gave me the headlining spot. But you know what else? It didn’t work: they didn’t change the policy.) They are welcome to speak to the regulators, they can even “speak” to them using money and hired lobbyists. There is an argument made in the Lobbying article on Wikipedia which claims that the solution to the problem is to increase lobbying competition: to have more non-profits, more public interest groups work the lobbying system as well, to balance the private corporations; I can see the value in that.

But we need to close the revolving door. The regulators should not be hired from the industries they regulate. It may make their jobs harder if they don’t have ties to the industries, don’t have those handy insider contacts; good. Jobs should be hard. That’s why we get paid to do them. I can see industry people as advisors, as resources, as witnesses testifying in front of committees; not as the ones holding the gavel, the ones actually in charge. You might ask your kids what they want for dinner, but you don’t let them cook it. You can poll inmates in a prison as to what improvements they would like to see, but you don’t let them make the decisions: “I’d like to see the bars and fences and walls removed, and all inmates put on the honor system.” As ridiculous as this is, this is what we’re doing with Monsanto and Halliburton and Wall Street.

At the same time, it is absurd that government officials can leave office and then go to work for those companies they “regulated” while in office. Direct bribes are already illegal, and I have already argued against the use of campaign funds as indirect bribes. So the next step in ending corruption should be this; and in this case, it’s a pretty simple law, and it’s a law that could be passed, I think, with our current legislators – the majority of whom are not part of corruption quite this brazen. I may not like most of the people in office, but they’re not Dick Cheney. (Did you know that the EPA can’t regulate fracking because of the “Halliburton loophole,” a clause added to a 2005 energy bill by Dick freaking Cheney when he was Vice President? Suddenly I feel like he shot me in the face. Or rather, the entire country.) If we the people apply a modicum of pressure to our elected officials, we may be able to get a simple delay put in place: a government official cannot work for an industry that benefited materially from that official’s votes or committee membership for a period of ______ years after leaving office. Let’s say five. After five years out of office, the official’s ties and contacts would be out of date and useless; and five years out of office and working at a normal human’s job is too long a delay: I don’t think most people would accept the offer of a lucrative job as a bribe if they had to wait five years to cash in. Not even the corrupt ones.

So here’s what we do: agitate for this law. There are already laws in place regarding the connections between lobbyists and officials, and ex-officials turned lobbyists, and lobbyists turned regulators; even Dick Cheney had to “retire” before he could be “elected.” (This latter set of Sarcastoquotes brought to you by the Supreme Court decision to end the recount in Florida, which handed an election actually won by Al Gore and Joe Lieberman over to Bush and Cheney, who actually lost. And so did the country.) All we need to add is a law mandating a delay between leaving office and becoming a lobbyist or consultant. Then we set up a committee (or give the responsibility to an agency already in place, like the FBI or the Federal Election Commission) to oversee what federal officials do after they leave office, correlate that with their votes for or against any industry that subsequently hires them, and bring charges if they break the waiting period.

And oh yes: the people on that committee can’t be lobbyists.

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