Monday, June 29, 2009

The fault, Horatio, lies not in our politicians but in our selves

The Center of Public Integrity doesn’t think Virginia’s legislators have much.

A report released last week gives Virginia an “F” on the transparency of legislators’ financial disclosure statements and ranks Virginia 31st among the 50 states. Among the center’s complaints are that legislators fail to identify clients that they represent in court and before state agencies.

Understand that the center’s complaint isn’t that lawmakers are violating the law, but that the law itself is defective.

The fault for that lies, not with the General Assembly, but with Virginia’s voters.

Having worked as a legislative staffer and as part of state party staff, I can tell you that good government regulations that would fix those problems are disdained both by our elected representatives – of both parties – and their staffs.

Staff doesn’t want to stop the flow of campaign contribution gravy that pays their salaries and members don’t want to turn off the spigot of legalized bribes that insures they’ll have an easier time being re-elected. And they don’t feel they have to.

Because you don’t care.

“That doesn’t move one vote,” a senior staffer once told me of a proposal to limit campaign contributions to General Assembly and statewide candidates. The same is true of other “good government” initiatives like non-partisan redistricting. You, the voters, just don’t care about that.

And he’s right. The lack of any effective limits on campaign contributions hasn’t imperiled any incumbent’s time in office. Quite the opposite.

In case you don’t know, Virginia is one of the few states with no limits on campaign contributions. If you, or more likely Dominion Resources, wanted to give a candidate for governor a million dollars, that’s perfectly okay under Virginia law. As long as he reports the contribution.

Virginia politicians have gone for the “full disclosure” route rather than limit campaign contributions under the logic that “the public will decide” if a contribution was improper.

Except that you the public are not going to take up the time to look up who gave how much money to whom. And, if you do find out, usually as the result of an opponent’s negative advertising or a newspaper story, you don’t care.

We allow legislators to represent clients before state boards and agencies that they appoint and to practice law in front of judges that they elect, because you don’t care. It doesn’t affect your vote, so the politicians have no reason to change a system that benefits them.

That’s why Sen. Tommy Norment (R-3rd) didn’t think it was any big deal when he was appointed commissioner of accounts for Williamsburg and James City County. He didn’t even send out a press release. Because other legislators had held the same position before, some currently hold it and, with the exception of two cases, the voters haven’t cared.

He’s playing by the rules. The rules say there’s nothing wrong with him holding that position, to which he was appointed by a judge he voted to put on the bench.

When I wrote about that story last year we got a few letters and Last Word comments contending it was a conflict of interest. It’s not.

Virginia’s conflict of interest statute is so loosely written that, to be in violation, a member of the General Assembly would basically have to put in, and vote for, a bill that required the state treasurer to cut him a check. And, if the law specified that everybody in the state who looked like the legislator, or was the same height, or was in the same business also got the check, even that might pass muster.

Because you don’t care.

Richmond lobbyists aren’t shadowy figures who do their deals in secret. They wear their influence on their sleeves.

Sometimes, it’s rather comical. At about 4 p.m. on any day the General Assembly is in session you can see legislators in the halls searching for their “lobbyist of the day,” who’ll pick up the check for dinner. Sometimes lobbyists pick up checks for large groups of up to 100 that include legislators, their staff and sometimes even the press.

“If you can’t drink their whiskey and eat their steak and then vote against them the next day, you don’t belong here,” a veteran legislator once told me.

Unfortunately, the record shows that they more often vote for the folks with the whiskey and steaks.

That’s why Virginia is a bad state for underdogs. If you’re a tenant, you’ve got basically no rights that can be enforced in court against your landlord. If you’re a consumer, you’re left at the mercy of predatory businesses, like payday lenders. If you’re a lobbyist for Common Cause or the League of Women Voters pushing some “good government” reform, you won’t get the hearing that a big corporation will because you can’t afford to pick up dinner checks.

During roll call votes in the House of Delegates, you’ll often hear joking exhortations to “lean to the green.” It’s more than a joke. The side with the most “green” wins more often than not.

Lobbyist and legislators, of course, will tell you that the meals and the gifts and the campaign cash only buys “access” That’s not true. They buy bills and votes. Look up you favorite legislator on the Virginia Public Access Project’s website. See who their largest contributors are and then check how many bills they sponsor that benefit that donor and how many votes they cast for and against that donor’s interests.

It’s legalized bribery. But there’s nothing wrong with it, because that’s the system that’s in place.

Because you don’t care.

Jeff Shapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote his Sunday column about a new member of the FBI’s public corruption squad who’s looking around the General Assembly to get the lay of the land.

The FBI in Richmond has caught a couple of members of the Richmond City Council with their hands in the cookie jar over the past several years and successfully prosecuted them for bribery. They got caught with the money in their hands, more or less.

Members of the General Assembly are smarter than that.

I predict that FBI agent will see a lot of corruption at the Capitol. But very little of it will be against the law.

Because you don’t care.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Political sex scandals: Why do we care?

The Republican field for the 2012 presidential race shrank Wednesday as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford revealed that he’d been carrying on an affair with a woman in Argentina.

Sanford had vaulted into prominence by threatening to refuse some of the federal stimulus money, which endeared him to hard core conservatives and projected him onto the list of possible GOP candidates in 2012.

Sanford’s admission comes on the heels of a similar confession by Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign. Last year, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, resigned and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, was embarrassed by revelations that they had each patronized prostitutes and Democrat John Edwards destroyed his political career with an extramarital affair that may have produced a child.

On each occasion, and in the case of President Bill Clinton in which a consensual sex act between two adults was exaggerated into a constitutional crisis, the news media poured out all the sordid details to a voyeuristic American public and the professional scolds had a field day.

Why? Who cares?

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Monday, June 22, 2009

The lobbyists are about to beat us again

We the people are about to get kneecapped by the special interests yet again.

And Barack Obama is about to fail to deliver on the most important promise he made to the American people. Unless the American people get up off the couch, turn off the television and make their voices heard.

Support for a public option in health care reform – that is support for any real health care reform – is ebbing even among Democrats in Congress in the face of intensive lobbying and big-money bribery (in the form of campaign contributions) from the big insurance, pharmaceutical and health maintenance companies.

That’s despite the fact that more than 70% of Americans say they support a single payer, government option.

Which they should, because it’s the one way that the United States will cut its ridiculous health care costs, while insuring universal coverage. It’s the one way to force the insurance companies to get serious about cleaning up their own houses, if they are forced to compete with a public option, which is likely to be cost less and be run more efficiently.

Part of the problem with the health care debate we’ve been having in this country is that proponents of universal health care have presented the issue poorly. They’ve focused on the uninsured. Any reasonable proposal for health care reform will cover the uninsured as a matter of course.

But proponents of health care reform should be talking to the rest of us, the vast mass of the American public that is being cheated by our current health care system that benefits only insurance companies, Big Pharma and a few large health care providers.

They should be talking to those of us who have health care provided through our employers but every year we see premiums, deductibles and co-pays increase and coverage shrink.

They should be talking to the millions of Americans, many of whom think of themselves as middle class, who have to delay or forego needed tests or treatments because they can’t afford the co-pay. (If your insurance covers 80% of a $10,000 MRI that leaves you with a $2,000 bill. Not everyone has $2K on hand.)

They should be talking to the majority of the American middle class who live one catastrophic health issue away from financial ruin. Medical expenses are the single greatest cause of bankruptcies in the United States. (This surprised me – I would have thought it was divorce.)

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Financial Safeguards: A little late, not nearly enough

Congress and the Obama administration finally got around this week to considering reforms to the financial industry to try to avoid the type of theft, malfeasance and greed that ran the economy into the ground over the last few years.

Frankly, it’s surprising that this wasn’t a matter of first priority for the incoming administration.

One of the stated priorities of Obama’s administration was to restore confidence in the nation’s financial system. It eludes me, how that could be done when the lax rules, watered down regulations and paltry oversight that let a few Wall Street greed heads bring the nation to the brink of another Great Depression for the own personal gain remained in place.

How the faint-hearted proposed reforms will avoid a repeat of that situation also eludes me.

Financial reform should have been pretty straightforward. All it really required was a repeal of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed the Depression-Era Glass-Steagall Act and replaced the regulations that had kept our economy safe from Depression for 60 years with a deregulation scheme that turned Wall Street into the Wild West.

What was needed were restraints on the trading of derivatives that have no underlying value in the economy and turn the stock markets into casinos.

With all due respect to Colonial Williamsburg, which managed to offset $120 million in losses during the stock market plunge with put contracts on the Standard & Poor 500, such contracts add nothing to the economy of the nation. They don’t represent an investment, they represent a wager.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

The 3-person rule: What we have here is a failure to negotiate

So the Williamsburg City Council has decided to continue studying changes to the city’s 3-person rule.

Last week council told staff to look over the report from the citizen focus group that it appointed, which was unable to reach compromise after several months of work, and to try to pick out of it recommendations that were legal and sensible to help resolve the issue of student housing near the College of William & Mary.

I went to every meeting of that focus group. It was an educational experience.

I have to confess that I started out in sympathy with the students who want to expand or eliminate the rule that limits the number of unrelated persons who can live together in a home.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s the government’s business, outside of protecting public health and safety, to interfere in peoples’ living arrangements.

And I’m pretty sure the city can’t make a convincing case that four students living in a four-bedroom house constitute a threat to the public health or safety. In fact, since the sleeping arrangements inside the house aren’t any of the government’s business either, I’m not sure a case could be made to prohibit four students living in a two-bedroom apartment.

I also believed, and still do, that the neighbors’ complaints about partying and noise – which the city has other ordinances to address – were exaggerated.

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Deeds-McDonnell II: Steel Cage, Exploding Ring, Death Match?

The Democratic primary couldn’t have worked out better for politics junkies.
We’ve got a rematch of the closest statewide race in Virginia history, one in which both candidates will be well funded by their respective parties and one on which the eyes of the nation will focus.

It could get ugly.

But it doesn’t’ have to.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

It Doesn’t Matter If It Works

There’s a silly debate going on in this country between former Vice President Dick Cheney and those who haven’t embraced the dark side of the force.

Cheney, in a seemingly endless media tour designed to defend the legacy of the Bush administration – a task that makes Hercules cleaning the Aegean Stables seem like light work – is arguing that “enhanced interrogation techniques” – that’s torture to those of you not fluent in Evil Orwellian Newspeak – worked to keep America safe after 9/11.

Mr. Cheney’s legion of critics says he’s either out of his mind or outright lying and that torture didn’t produce useful intelligence that prevented terrorist attacks. Even Gen. David Patreus, the Bush administration’s designated savior of Iraq, has said the U.S. has violated the Geneva Conventions and called for a panel to investigate.

Basically, by arguing that torture was ineffective, Cheney’s critics also miss the central point:

It doesn’t matter whether torture worked or not!

The United States doesn’t (or shouldn’t) refrain from torture because we think it’s ineffective. We don’t torture because if we do we are not the people or the nation that our children learn about in school.

We don’t torture because it’s wrong. It wouldn’t be any less wrong, if it worked.

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