As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Buying Of America

The Supreme Court just barely did the right thing in the case of a West Virginia coal baron who bought a judge, exposing the right wing of the Court as openly hostile to the rule of law so long as corporations are involved.

When West Virginia coal overlord Don Blankenship’s company lost a $50 million verdict to one of its competitors, Blankenship set out to buy a judge. Rather than appeal his case to a fair tribunal, Blankenship spent $3 million to elect a friendly lawyer to the West Virginia Supreme Court, even running ads accusing the lawyer’s opponent of voting to free an incarcerated child rapist, and of allowing that rapist to work in a public school. Once elected by a Blankenship-funded campaign, the newly-minted justice cast the deciding vote overturning the verdict against Blankenship’s company.

Today, the Supreme Court held that this kind of justice-for-sale bribery has no place under the United States Constitution. But all four of the Court’s most conservative members voted that there is no problem when a wealthy businessman literally buys a judge. In a dissent joined by conservative justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that this decision — on a case so egregious that John Grisham turned it into a legal thriller — would encourage “groundless” charges that other “judges are biased”.

Despite the slaivishness of the Scalia-Thomas-Alito-Roberts faction, the Court ruled correctly that wealthy defendants should not interfere with the legal process through campaign contributions. But what about the wealthy who contribute to the campaigns of politicians who make decisions affecting their interests?

It seems strange, almost surreal, to say this, but the Republican Party, and arguably the whole conservative movement, is not the left's biggest enemy at the moment. On keeping a public plan in healthcare reform; streamlining student lending; and passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), cap and trade, financial regulation and a host of other structural economic reforms progressives hope to enact, the GOP is more akin to the garbage men than the alderman.

"Most Republicans aren't waking up every day thinking, How do we kill banking regulation?" says Goehl. "Most people who listen to Rush Limbaugh aren't waking up thinking about how do we kill banking regulation. But the people with the deep pockets who have power in DC are thinking that [...]

While the Republican Party shrinks, corporate interests are deftly molting their old K Street Project skin and crawling en masse inside the big tent being pitched by the Democratic Party. These same corporate interests have always had a purchase on Democrats, of course. But for much of the last decade, business interests had the luxury of spending most of their resources aiding their allies in the GOP.

No more. Writing on The Atlantic's website, Scott Bland and Ronald Brownstein identify the emergence of what they dub "The Democratic Industrial Complex." Energy and healthcare companies, automakers and banks all understand that the Democrats control much of their fate, so they've cast their lot with the majority party in a big way: John Kerry got less than 20 percent of the donations from electric utilities; Barack Obama got almost 60 percent. So far in this cycle, Democrats have captured two-thirds of the donations from the healthcare industry.

If big business's old legislative strategy was centered on relentless opposition to progressive initiatives--an approach that continues in areas like EFCA--the new strategy is to subvert legislation through co-optation, as in healthcare and cap and trade. By converting themselves, ostensibly, from opponents to "partners," corporate lobbies are trying to have it both ways: to block reforms while changing overt power struggles over the future of the economy into seemingly cooperative negotiations. At these negotiations, to use the president's favorite phrase, "everyone has a seat at the table"--except, the lobbyists get by far the best seats. (Alinsky didn't have much patience for this approach. "This liberal cliché about reconciliation of opposing forces is a load of crap," he once said. "When one side gets enough power, then the other side gets reconciled to it.")

Paul Krugman kind of gets at this today, in discussing the imminent fall of Gordon Brown in Britain. He generally acknowledges that thrall to financial innovation is a bipartisan problem, and the punishment from the electorate just depends on a kind of musical chairs, where whoever happens to be in the leadership bears the brunt of the pain.

Now, I don't expect this Supreme Court to strike down all campaign contributions. But it certainly does argue for full public financing, to remove this coziness between the oligarchs and the government they routinely buy.

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