August 11, 2016

American Politics and Conflicts of Interest

Politico's Katy O'Donnell writes, "No matter who wins in November, the next president will bring enormous potential conflicts of interest to the Oval Office...Americans could see a leader regulating the same banks that lend the Trump Organization millions of dollars, or one negotiating with foreign governments contributing millions to the Clinton Foundation." O'Donnell goes on to note something which all of us should find deeply troubling: such conflicts of interest are perfectly legal.

This past week some conservatives have trounced on Hillary Clinton for influence which the Clinton Foundation might have had during her tenure as Secretary of State, but as O'Donnell reminds us, this a bipartisan problem, one involving presidents, vice-presidents, members of Congress, and staffers. 

Meriam-Webster defines a conflict of interest as "a conflict between the private interests and the official responsibilities of a person in a position of trust." We see this all the time in Washington. We saw this during the Bush years when the administration, led by officials with deep connections to defense contractors, led us into war. The friends and former colleagues of these officials benefited greatly from war. Perfectly legal. 

We see this in the revolving door that exists between Congress and corporations. While still in office, many lawmakers make deals to work for these corporations upon leaving office, and in the interim they push legislation that benefits their future employers. For instance, Senator Judd Gregg spent his final years in office "fighting reforms to bring greater transparency to the derivatives marketplace." Once a private citizen, he went to work for Goldman Sachs. Congressman Billy Tauzin pushed for Bush's prescription drug expansion and also helped "block a proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate for drug prices." In the five years after leaving office,  he made $19 million as a lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies. 

There's also the reverse revolving door wherein soon-to-be Congressional staffers receive "six-figure bonuses and other incentive pay from corporate firms shortly before taking jobs in Congress." An investigation by The Nation found that many of these staffers "are well positioned to influence multibillion-dollar legislation on issues ranging from tax policy to defense, and which impact their previous employers."

And of course conflicts of interest can result from campaign donations. Citizens United enabled corporations to “spend unlimited amounts of their treasuries’ money on political advertisements.” "In effect," Noam Chomsky writes, "the decision permits corporate managers to buy elections directly." Perhaps just as troubling, corporations do not have to publicly disclose that they're spending this money," thus preventing voters from understanding who is truly behind many political messages.”

I think that reasonable people can agree that none of this benefits the average citizen. If we care about democracy, we really need to do something.

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