Commentary: New GOP chairman Marc Racicot mixes politics and profits

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President Bush's recent decision to name an active, registered lobbyist to head the Republican National Committee is a stunning metaphor about how power, money and hubris in Washington can dull the ethical judgment of an Administration that vowed to "restore honor and dignity" to the White House. It also provides a rare glimpse at the seamy side of our major political parties.

Former Montana Governor Marc Racicot is a registered lobbyist for the Houston law firm of Bracewell & Patterson, personally representing the controversial energy firm Enron, the American Forest and Paper Association, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the National Energy Coordinating Council, the Recording Industry Association of America, and Quintana Minerals. According to lobbying disclosure records, Racicot’s clients paid $710,000 in fees to his firm in the first half of this year. The Los Angeles Times reported in August that Racicot had lobbied Vice President Dick Cheney on behalf of the National Electric Reliability Council and his energy task force director, Andrew Lundquist, on the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to require old plants to update their clean air equipment. The Cheney task force later recommended that the Justice Department consider dropping lawsuits it had filed against certain companies for alleged environmental violations. The Bush administration continues to stonewall requests to release information about the energy task force.

Racicot, as Republican Party chairman, will not accept his $150,000 annual salary, but instead earn much more as an active partner in the law firm. The President, said Racicot, has no problem with his wish to “continue on with my occupation.” Chairing the party in control of the White House and the House of Representatives, and simultaneously working as a very high profile lobbyist whose lucky firm is certain to add many more eager clients, Racicot instantly will become the most powerful influence peddler in Washington.

As party chairman, he necessarily will be in regular, face-to-face contact with the President, the Vice President, Cabinet secretaries and the senior White House staff, as well as the Speaker of the House and other GOP Congressional leaders. He will know the precise vote counts of all pending legislation before the roll is called, and exactly what legislation the White House plans to introduce on Capitol Hill – pure gold for any lobbyist competing in today’s mercenary milieu. He will have infinitely more power and access than other lobbyists, but without the accountability, financial sacrifice or ethics laws of government officials. Although political parties are major public institutions in our society, top party officials are not regulated by conflict of interest laws and are not even required by law to reveal their sources of annual income. Nor does the Freedom of Information Act apply to them, so whom they meet with, telephone or correspond with is elusive and generally unknown.

None of these issues faze Racicot, who recently told Thomas Edsall of The Washington Post, “The chairman is not a government employee. I’m going to be involved in the political activities of our nation as a volunteer.” Under this Orwellian construct, I guess thousands of well-heeled, corporate lobbyists are all political volunteers in Washington, and in our gratitude, we will soon call such patriotic selflessness “a thousand points of might.”

The Bush White House similarly doesn’t see anything wrong with this picture. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, “There’s been ample history on both the Democratic and Republican side of chairmen being involved in either lobbying or having outside sources of income.” Unfortunately, he is correct that conflicts of interest are a way of life for political party chairmen. According to the Center for Public Integrity, between 1977 and 1993 half of the national party chairmen received outside income from corporations and law firms – despite party charters expressly stipulating that the chairman’s position is “full time.”

Republicans, among others, strongly criticized the late Ron Brown’s conduct as chairman of the Democratic Party in the early 1990s, when he simultaneously maintained a corner office at the lobbying firm of Patton, Boggs as a full partner, and maintained business relationships with at least three of its clients. He solicited government contracts for both his law firm and a company he headed, while heading the party.

Because of the Brown controversy, when Washington lobbyist Haley Barbour became GOP chairman in late 1992, he publicly pledged to party leaders and on CNN that he would completely sever his ties to Barbour, Griffith & Rogers. But in fact he never sold his interest in the firm, deriving income from its tobacco, pharmaceutical and other clients. The subterfuge only became known to reporters in the final days of his four-year term, when Barbour’s firm landed a contract representing the Swiss Government and had to register ownership and other information with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In the letter of agreement stipulating that the firm would receive $20,000 a month, Barbour’s partner Lanny Griffith wrote to the Swiss Ambassador, “We are eager to assist the Swiss government managing the controversy arising out of allegations of Swiss banking practices before, during and after World War II and relating to the Holocaust.”

“According to the Center for Public Integrity, between 1977 and 1993 half of the national party chairmen received outside income from corporations and law firms – despite party charters expressly stipulating that the chairman’s position is ‘full time.’”

Barbour admitted, in an interview for The Buying of the President 2000, that he kept his equity share in the firm, but insisted that he has always operated in a carefully correct manner. “When I ran for chairman, I said I would not actively lobby because I didn’t want a Member [of Congress] to wonder whether I was coming down there for the Republican Party or for some business deal that is in Haley’s interest.”

Barbour’s counterpart, Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler, worked simultaneously as a lobbyist for various corporate interests, including Chem-Nuclear Systems, Inc., registered in South Carolina and Illinois. When later asked about this apparent conflict of interest not widely known during his DNC chairmanship, Fowler said, “My private business concerns never became an issue while I was there, and really haven’t since.” Recall that when mysterious soft money donors gave millions of dollars to the Democratic Party in the 1996 presidential election, one of them, Johnny Chung (later convicted for bank fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy), said, “The White House is like a subway. You have to put in coins to open the gates.” Fowler and his staff set up Chung’s White House meetings, and Fowler later defended “servicing” the donors in his testimony to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, “I have long believed that one of the principal functions of a political party is to provide a link between the people and government. I thus believe it fully appropriate for the head of a national party to secure a meeting for a supporter with an administration official and to advocate a worthy cause.”

Now Racicot has unabashedly, publicly declared at the onset of his tenure as national party chairman that he will simultaneously, actively lobby for major corporate clients with business before the federal government. That is a first, even in ethically challenged Washington.

Forget those quaint notions that political parties exist almost entirely to elect candidates. Parties and their chairmen raise hundreds of millions of dollars each election cycle from various special interests that often want something from government. They are the enablers in this ongoing addictive process, helping their elected officials to keep drinking in the campaign cash and helping their patrons feel good about giving it. Besides being Lobbyist-in-Chief, chairmen help to deliver access and other favors to the most generous party patrons.

Candidate George W. Bush’s comments in the presidential debates now ring hollow and, in retrospect, ironically Clintonesque, “We need to have a new look about how we conduct ourselves in office. There’s a huge trust . . . We can do better than the past administration has done. It’s time for a fresh start after a season of cynicism.”

“Full Time” Jobs

Democratic National Committee

(The whole charter can be found at the DNC website.)

THE CHARTER & THE BYLAWS OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY OF THE UNITED STATES As Amended by The Democratic National Committee September 25, 1999

ARTICLE FIVE National Chairperson Section 1. The National Chairperson of the Democratic Party shall carry out the programs and policies of the National Convention and the Democratic National Committee.

Section 2. The National Chairperson, the five Vice Chairpersons, the National Finance Chair, the Treasurer, and the Secretary, shall be elected: (a) at a meeting of the Democratic National Committee held after the succeeding presidential election and prior to March 1 next, and, (b) whenever a vacancy occurs. The National Chairperson shall be elected and may be removed by a majority vote of the Democratic National Committee, and each term shall expire upon the election for the following term.

Section 3. The National Chairperson shall preside over meetings of the Democratic National Committee and of the Executive Committee. In the event of a vacancy in the office of the National Chairperson, the designated Vice Chair as provided for in Article Two, Section 12(b) of the Bylaws, or the next highest ranking officer of the National Committee present at the meeting shall preside.

Section 4. The National Chairperson shall serve full time and shall receive such compensation as may be determined by agreement between the Chairperson and the Democratic National Committee. In the conduct and management of the affairs and procedures of the Democratic National Committee, particularly as they apply to the preparation and conduct of the Presidential nomination process, the Chairperson shall exercise impartiality and evenhandedness as between the Presidential candidates and campaigns. The Chairperson shall be responsible for ensuring that the national officers and staff of the Democratic National Committee maintain impartiality and evenhandedness during the Democratic Party Presidential nominating process.

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Republican National Committee

(For the whole charter, visit the RNC website.)

The Rules Of The Republican Party As adopted by the 2000 Republican National Convention July 31, 2000

RULE NO. 5 Officers of the Republican National Committee

(a) The officers of the Republican National Committee shall consist of:

(1) A chairman and a co-chairman of the opposite sex who shall be elected by the members of the Republican National Committee. Except as otherwise ordered by a majority of the members of the Republican National Committee present and voting on the matter, the chairman and the co-chairman shall be full-time, paid employees of the Republican National Committee. The chairman shall be the chief executive officer of the Republican National Committee. The chairman or co-chairman may be removed from office only by a two-thirds (2/3) vote of the entire Republican National Committee.