The day after millions consumed beer, barbecue and pyrotechnics to honor the 229th anniversary of our nation’s hard-won liberation from the British Empire, I’d like make a modest proposal. It appears at the end of this essay, but be patient: first I’d like to tell you why. If you read to the end and agree it’s worth putting this idea out to a wider audience, please forward this message.
A few nights ago, while I chopped vegetables, my husband read me Elizabeth Drew’s essay “Selling Washington” from the June 23rd \New York Review of Books\. In it, Drew, who is not exactly a flaming radical, details conservative Republicans’ success in putting over their “K Street Project,” which comprises two parts. Part one: punish lobbying groups that employ Democrats by denying them access to Congressional committees and other opportunities to influence policy; part two: reward those who do employ Republicans by inviting them to draft legislation, confer directly with members of Congress and reap solid economic returns on their campaign contributions.
Drew tells a tale of pressure tactics and baksheesh that knocked us for a loop. “Whoa!” I said to my husband, “welcome to the new banana republic.” “Yeah,” he said, “and we did it with borrowed bananas.”
Here’s just one of many examples from Drew’s essay:
“The energy bill passed by the House in April is a striking case in point. The oil-and-gas industry, a top contributor of campaign money?80 percent of it to Republicans?benefited from several of its new provisions. A study by the staff of Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, shows that perhaps the most indefensible provision gave a waiver against lawsuits to manufacturers of MTBE, or methyl tertiary-butyl ether, a gasoline additive that’s a pollutant and suspected carcinogen. According to Waxman’s staff, this waiver is worth billions to energy companies; the major beneficiaries would be Exxon, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, contributed $942,717 to candidates in the last election cycle; Valero Energy, $841,375; Lyondell Chemical, $342,775; and Halliburton, $243,946. The bill also exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act the practice of hydraulic fracturing, which is used to make natural gas wells more productive and can also have an adverse effect on drinking water. Halliburton would benefit from this provision as well.
“Another provision provided compensation to oil companies that bought leases, supposedly a speculative venture, on offshore sites where there is a moratorium on drilling. The compensation is worth billions of dollars to the oil industry. The bill also provided for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWAR) to oil drilling?an invasion of the refuge that environmental groups have long tried to prevent. (Now that it contains more Republicans, the Senate passed a similar provision as part of its budget bill earlier this year.) The Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee were effectively shut out of the drafting of the energy bill. House Democrat Edward Markey, a member of the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, told me, ‘The energy companies got everything they wanted. Eight billion dollars in subsidies go to the energy companies, but to say that the conservation measures in it are modest would be a generous description.'”
None of this is exactly new, but seeing it assembled by a middle-of-the-roader like Drew is clarifying. And it was sobering to learn how zealously the administration has pursued a program of secrecy to cover its tracks. As was reported in Sunday’s New York Times, at an annual cost to taxpayers of over $7 billion, twice as many documents were classified secret last year as in 2001, and the declassification process which releases documents to historians and the public has slowed to one-tenth of its mid-90s rate.
This is not about politics, but about money, about corruption. Washington is in the hands of thieves who wrap themselves in the flag to conceal all the loot stuffed into their pockets. We have reached a crossroads: this is a time to clean house, to throw the bums out. We need a leader of recognized integrity to serve as a symbol of our passionate desire for real democracy and ethical government, one whose own political ambitions are not so heated that there is a real risk of ego expanding to occupy the space formerly reserved for integrity. We need a hero who will run on a good government platform, finally shaming members of Congress into voting for campaign finance reform with teeth in it — a double row of shark teeth would be best, I think. We need a leader who is respected by the world and able to deal respectfully despite political differences. The reform program should be swift and focused, a one-term plan for major change that starts the day after the election. (Ronald Reagan already showed us that it is possible to work this fast and effectively, albeit toward very different ends.)
In short, let me be the first to say we should draft Jimmy Carter to return for a one-term reform presidency for the specific purpose of getting the money and corruption out of the federal government and establishing a one-person, one-vote system in the place of government by bribe.
Carter wasn’t a perfect president by any means — who’s perfect? — and I was among his critics. But he has certainly redeemed himself by monitoring elections abroad, facilitating talks between parties in conflict, building houses for people whose government no longer cares whether they are forced to live on the streets, and a thousand other good deeds he has undertaken, heart and soul. He’s not a young man, but I venture to say he has more energy and brain power now than Reagan did in his second term. Carter can’t be bought, he has no further ambitions for his personal political career, and he knows just about everything there is to know about human rights (check out the Carter Center Web site).
I’d like to see an energetic and visionary new figure come onto the political scene and sweep his or her way into the next presidency on a platform of justice, peace and equity. But I just don’t see it happening until we recognize the great crime that is being perpetrated on American democracy, roll up our sleeves and clean house. What do you think?