Thursday, April 25, 2019

(Nearly) Empty Promise

Cenk Uygur (video, below) is pleased with the response of Pete Buttigieg at his CNN town hall meeting to a question about campaign finance. The brilliant, very smooth, and otherwise superficial mayor stated

Corporations do not equal people and that money does not equal speech. Dome have said that within the framework of the constitution, you  can't draw those boundaries and that led to a decision that I think has been disastrous for our politics, which is the Citizens United decision. I don't believe that the Constitution says that but if it does, then that's going to be the direction that our federal judiciary takes going forward, then I think it's necessary to formulate a constitutional amendment to clear this up once and for all. I'm under no illusion that it's possible overnight to get that reform but I think most Americans actually agree that we need to get money out of politics.

Uygur wonders why the other Democrats running for President haven't brought up the need to topple the Citizens United decision, because of both the pernicious influence of money in politics and the practical difficulty of success.

There is, however, a third reason. Several of them have pledged not to accept donations from lobbyists, a promise first made (and largely kept) by Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign, then repeated in 2012 (somewhat kept). We're reminded

In his two runs for the White House, President Obama pledged that he would not accept money from registered lobbyists. But his campaign received donations from people who, while not registered, walk and talk an awful lot like lobbyists, including advisors who manage lobbyists. Consider that

Sunlight’s investigation into the political 1 percent of the 1 percent — the donor class whose members individually contributed at least $12,950 to political campaigns in the 2012 election — showed that many, many big donors in the influence business have contributed to the president.

At least four dozen of them — lobbyists and employees of lobbying or public relations firms — contributed to the president in 2011 or 2012. One officially registered lobbyist even donated and, unlike the other registered lobbyists who did so, his contribution was not refunded.

President Obama pledged on the campaign trail in 2008, “We will not take a dime from Washington lobbyists or special interest PACs. We’re going to change how Washington works.”

But the policy ended up meaning that he would not accept money from officially registered lobbyists, a porous legal standard that allows many to influence government officials without ever registering to do so. Unless one spends at least 20 percent of his time lobbying on behalf of a client in a three-month period and makes more than one contact with an executive or legislative branch official, there is no need to register.

A recent Center for Responsive Politics report showed that of the registered lobbyists that deregistered in 2012, 46 percent remained with the same organization, suggesting that it’s easy for a lobbyist to adjust her workload to avoid registering.

That does not render irrelevant or moot a vow to eschew funds from lobbyists. However, its significance is limited and as a means of getting money out of politics (evidently Uygur's highest priority), it is being rendered meaningless. Kevin Robillard notes for Huffington post

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign won’t accept donations from federal lobbyists – but a fundraiser scheduled for the first day of his campaign also shows the limitations of such a pledge.

Biden is set to attend a fundraiser Thursday night at the Philadelphia home of Comcast executive David Cohen, according to an invite first published by Politico and later obtained by HuffPost. While Cohen is not a registered lobbyist, he does oversee the cable giant’s massive D.C. lobbying operation, which spent more than $4 million and involved more than three dozen lobbying firms in the first quarter of 2019 alone.

It sometimes may seem that Amazon (and a few other mega-corporations) rules the world. But not as long as there is a Comcast. Robillard adds

Cohen, a former top aide to then-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, is a major political player in Pennsylvania and Washington, and Comcast’s lobbying operation is considered among the nation’s most powerful. But it’s fairly easy for Cohen and others to avoid registering as lobbyists, as long as they don’t spend more than 20 percent of their time directly interacting with lawmakers and staff.

Kirsten Gillibrand also is taking advantage of this loophole and Buttigieg, as well as "lesser-known candidates" Hickenlooper and Delaney are accepting money from lobbyists, However, Biden's move demonstrates that we have sort of come full circle:

For instance, Daniel Cruise, the head of government affairs for Juul, donated $2,800 to the presidential bids of both Harris and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Cruise is not a registered lobbyist. It’s also not the first time Cohen has taken advantage of such a loophole – he was able to donate to President Barack Obama and Biden’s 2012 reelection bid, which also eschewed lobbyist donations.

Of course he did.  This was only one of the cons the "only candidate who doesn't takea dime from oil company PACs or lobbyists" pulled off on the Democratic electorate, which still idolizes him.  It continues in both spirit and substance in the vow of those Democratic presidential aspirants not to accept money from lobbyists as they avoid, as Uygur indicates, taking the hard position on money in politics.

That Pete Buttigieg (Buttigieg!) is the first Democrat to go further rhetorically than Barack Obama demonstrates that for all its diversity in gender, race, and gender preference, this field of candidates thus far has been unwilling to stand apart in what really matters.

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