Commentary: 'Reformer with results'? Don't count on it

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On the opening night of the GOP convention in Philadelphia, retired General Colin Powell criticized his fellow Republicans for their hypocrisy on the subject of affirmative action. While "some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, hardly a whimper is heard from them over affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax codes with preferences for special interests."

For years, Washington has been crawling with literally hundreds of Republican and Democratic Party former U.S. officials-turned-lobbyists many of whom reap millions of dollars each year doing exactly what Powell described. Who can forget, for example, tobacco lobbyist and former Republican Party chairman Haley Barbour, who in 1997 quietly helped to orchestrate a $50 billion tax credit for the tobacco companies? Working closely with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., — with the acquiescence of the Clinton White House — Barbour, other lobbyists and tobacco state members inserted a 46-word sentence into a large budget bill giving the industry the huge tax break. Fortunately, the secret deal was discovered, causing a public uproar, and the tax break was overwhelmingly repealed.

In this lamentable era of unaccountability and “spin,” Gingrich and Lott never publicly acknowledged their parentage of the controversial, “affirmative action” for an industry whose cigarettes kill 400,000 Americans each year. But Barbour, who represents five major cigarette companies, admitted the entire caper to me in an interview for the Center’s investigative book, The Buying of the President 2000.

Don’t look for George W. Bush — the self-professed “reformer with results” who actually has never made a single political reform speech or proposal as the governor of Texas — to loosen the stranglehold Washington lobbyists and their clients have over our political process today. He, of course, couldn’t have raised his unprecedented $100 million in campaign cash without their generous help. (As the Center for Responsive Politics once calculated, 96 percent of the American people do not contribute to any politician or party, and a check of $1,000 comes from one-tenth of 1 percent, a tiny sliver of the wealthiest, most powerful elements of our society). Many of Bush’s unpaid policy advisers are Washington lobbyists, registered on behalf of various powerful economic interests (and identified by name in our Public i report, Under the Influence, in February).

Democrats no different

The Democrats are certainly no different in this regard. Despite the widely ballyhooed move of his campaign operation from Washington to Nashville, Vice President Al “no controlling legal authority” Gore is a creature of K Street and the “Iron Triangle” of campaign contributors, lobbyists and Congress. His $31.9 million in contributions raised in 1999 is the most by any Democrat in history the year before a presidential election, and, as with Bush, such phenomenal cash doesn’t come from backyard barbecues or bake sales. His closest confidantes and campaign advisers are, in fact, lobbyists for all kinds of corporate interests. They have become rich because of their close proximity to power, and his success and prominence in the party is partly due to their fund-raising efforts on his behalf. Meanwhile, under federal investigation, Gore still clings steadfastly to legalistic falsehoods. The notorious White House coffees — in which 1,544 people seeking “face time” with the president and vice president and their spouses collectively contributed $26.4 million to the Democratic Party — were not fund-raising events, he says with a straight face. The infamous Buddhist monastery event was nothing more than “community outreach.” Such sustained sophistry is tiresome and offensive.

Look at Cheney selection

But during this week of the Republican convention, if anyone had any remaining doubts at all that Bush is no outsider, that in fact he fully embraces the current mercenary milieu of Washington, take a closer look at his vice presidential selection of former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney.

Like many Republicans, the former House member and Ford White House chief of staff has spent a lifetime complaining about the oppressive, wasteful, inefficient role of Big Government. But ironically, few U.S. corporations or CEOs have benefited more from “affirmative action” by the U.S. government than Halliburton Co. and its celebrated CEO, Mr. Cheney.

Over the past five years that Cheney has run the Texas-based company, as Knut Royce and Nathaniel Heller have found in the latest Center for Public Integrity report, Halliburton and its subsidiaries have gotten at least $3.8 billion in federal contracts and taxpayer-insured loans. Under Cheney, Halliburton has received $2.3 billion in U.S. government contracts, up from $1.2 billion in contracts during the five years preceding his tenure. Halliburton has gotten $1.5 billion in guaranteed or direct loans from the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, up from a total of $100 million the government institutions insured in the five years before Cheney joined the company. Doing business in rogue states or with allegedly criminal companies apparently has not deterred the company or government agencies assisting it.

Greasing the skids

How does a corporation get “affirmative action” in Washington, in Halliburton’s case doubling the amount of federal contracts and increasing, by a factor of 15, the amount of government-guaranteed or direct loans? By greasing the skids the old-fashioned way. Cheney’s Halliburton has given $1.2 million to the two political parties and Congress in the past five years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The company’s expenditures on Washington lobbying have also mushroomed, from $280,000 in 1996 to $600,000 last year. As Halliburton’s fortunes have risen, so too have those of Cheney, who is suddenly, after five years there, worth about $50 million.

Hypocrisy in politics has become commonplace today, but it is unbecoming nonetheless. Cheney and Bush are for self-reliance, freedom and getting the government off our backs, unless there is a little “affirmative action” for your company. Don’t forget that George W. Bush’s primary success in business also came from government largesse. Bush made $14.9 million, a 25-fold return on his investment of $606,302 when the Texas Rangers baseball team was sold. What made the company so much more valuable in a decade? A new stadium funded by more than $200 million in public subsidies and tax incentives. Taxpayers didn’t get a return from the Rangers’ surging new revenues, of course. The profits went almost exclusively to the team’s already wealthy owners.

For all these reasons, I don’t expect certain kinds of “affirmative action” to change much any time soon.

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