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Congress for Sale


Tom Ferguson: Congressional committee seats and Chairs appointed based on dollars raised, not seniority -   November 10, 2011
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Congress for SalePAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington.

If you're a member of Congress, House or Senate, and you want to be a member of one of the powerful committees, or even more, chair of a powerful committee, how do you get there? Well, it used to be a matter of seniority. Now it's a matter of dollars. And how is this affect the whole issue of money in politics in Congress?

Now joining us to help us understand all this is Tom Ferguson. Tom is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a senior fellow of the Roosevelt Institute. Thanks for joining us again, Tom.

PROF. TOM FERGUSON, UMASS BOSTON, ROOSEVELT INSTITUTE: Hi there.

JAY: So, first of all, what is the fact basis here? You know, I think most people think, if you watch the movies, you know, the old crusty congressman/senator used to be chair of the committees, and they got there 'cause they were there longest. But that's not the case anymore.

FERGUSON: And they might have a heart of gold. Now they have a pocket of gold, okay, and that's a big shift.

I mean, look, it's relatively straightforward, Paul. In the old days, as you said, you got your—rose in the hierarchy in Washington basically by just sticking around, you know, a very special form of rule by the aged or gerontocracy, though what you measured was your time in the institution, not your calendar age. In the '70s, that collapsed. The Democrats brought it down first, but the Republicans followed. And, you know, for a long while, pieces of that lingered.

But the bottom line was, very quickly, that sort of institutional change in Congress coincided with the big revolution in the American economy that brought finance to the top, you know, taking it to be, you know, a monster percentage of all the profits, you know, in the early 2000s. And very quickly folks started—since, you know, there was no longer any sort of hierarchical structure coming from seniority, or not much of one, folks started in effect paying their colleagues to vote for them. That's—a pay-to-play system starts to develop.

In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay—DeLay would actually sit in the meetings selecting committee members and chairs with printouts of members' contributions. Gingrich and the Republicans put in the further requirement that you need to raise money for the congressional campaign committees, the national congressional campaign committee; and the Senate did the same thing at its end. The Democrats copied that system.

Now, what's—the striking implication of this, though, is what happens when you start filling the national campaign committee coffers, because that's not money the individual members control. That's controlled by the leadership. So what you get over time is a huge upward shift in power—maybe not over time in Gingrich and DeLay's thing. It was instantaneous. They got there, they put this system in, and there was no question [crosstalk]

JAY: Tom, so this power that gets concentrated in the hands of the party leadership, I guess indirectly the administration, what significance does that have in terms of democracy?

FERGUSON: Well, look, the first thing it does is it makes the individual members much more cautious about breaking with the party leadership. I mean, that's basically why everybody's index of party-line voting has gone up so much, I mean, the sort of massive concentration of power in the leadership. I mean, you get—it's one checkbook, one party, one message. And so just in the way they behave in Congress, they change. I mean, they act more—a little bit more like the ant colony, as it were, and a little less like the most expensive tropical fish in the tanks. Though, I mean, there are limits. The Senate's different from the House. But even there it's true.

JAY: If you were to—if Occupy Wall Street and others were to make some demands about some kind of reform in Congress that would distribute power more evenly or more fairly within Congress itself, what would that demand look like?

FERGUSON: Well, okay, in the end, any—I mean, I think, first of all, implicitly, I'm not—nobody in Occupy Wall Street's making lots of demands right now, and that seems to me perfectly rational. I mean, when I hear they don't have a program, I just think, hey, you know, the Democratic and Republican parties don't have one either, by the way, and they've been around a lot longer there—at least, any program that'll do much for any ordinary person.

So that—but as you start to formulate demands, you can see already Occupy Wall Street has basically got the most important point exactly right. Yeah, it's about 1 percent of the population that's taken down most of the income gains in the last 30 years. That's the first point.

The second thing is is that the connection between money and politics is just altogether organic at this point. It's basic. When I was down walking around the Occupy Wall Street in Boston the other day, I saw this sign that said, basically, capitalism is socialism for the 1 percent. That's about got it right. There's another sign I saw which I love, which was that congressional representatives should be like NASCAR drivers and tell us who their sponsors are, you know, just wear their sponsors' colors there. I mean, that would be a revolution in financial services, I'll tell you that.

The—and so in that sense, people, I think, have got it. But they need to make this concrete. And, you know, here I think you've got a short and a long problem.

The short problem is do something right away. I would myself insist that if you're on a congressional committee, you can't take any money from any interest that's affected by your decision. That's a—the reason I stress that is Congress absolutely, whatever the Supreme Court has to say, is allowed to make its own rules. They can't take—they don't have to take any dictation from the Supreme Court there. And they could do that in the current state of the law.

They could also enforce. They could direct the Federal Election Commission to actually enforce what looked like the intent of the statute in the—the legislation that people cite as enabling the so-called superPACs to use completely secret money. I mean, that rests in part on court decisions, but the secret part of it also rests on an FEC unwillingness to enforce the law. Now, they are, of course, taking sort of low-key direction from the House and Senate leadership; I mean, the FEC staff knows exactly what's required of them there. But we could change that, I think, if you focused on that.

In the longer run, I think you plainly want a constitutional amendment that makes it clear that corporations are not people and that allows the government to make reasonable rules on limiting money in politics. I mean, the notion that, you know, anybody who's super rich can do anything they want in American politics is ridiculous. It's a travesty.

JAY: Just really concretely, if people were going to ask for one or two very specific pieces of legislation that might help somehow mitigate this, what would that be?

FERGUSON: Okay. But, yeah, can I broaden the question? In the short run, I have to tell you, given that next month is the Supercommittee reporting, it would be tragic and ironic beyond measure if in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations what remains of the social safety net is shredded in the United States. You know, I hope that doesn't happen.

And in that sense I think folks got to remember that, you know, Wall Street isn't the only constituency pushing to cut social spending and keep taxes on the rich low, but it's one of the—it's probably the most powerful single force for doing that. And you've got to watch what Wall Street is doing in Washington next month or, you know, you can—it won't matter much what happens in December if in November that Supercommittee report is rolling through, shredding, you know, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and for that matter all domestic spending almost entirely in every program.

And you can crack down on the FEC laxity that allows these supercommittees not to report their contributions, 'cause that's partly court decisions and law, but it's also the enforcement. They are doing no enforcement at all. They're really taking their cues from the congressional leadership. I mean, that committee—pardon me—that agency has a very special relationship with Congress. But, you know, you could fix that, at least in theory. You could do it.

JAY: Right. Thanks very much for joining us, Tom.

FERGUSON: Okay. Bye-bye.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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