Warren’s New Goal: Actually Draining the Swamp

Commentary

Elizabeth Warren, Joan of Arc
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Perhaps the GQ headline put it best: “Sen. Elizabeth Warren Chose a Hell of a Day to Unveil Her Sweeping Anti-Corruption Bill.”

That phrase could be taken two ways: the evils Warren (D-MA) targeted were dramatized on August 21, when she unveiled her anti-corruption package in a hard-hitting speech at the National Press Club. That, of course, was the day that Paul Manafort, former chair of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, was convicted of tax and bank fraud, and Trump’s long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to tax and bank fraud as well as violating campaign finance law.

With so much breaking news, the big mainstream media sites did not have much time to actually report what she proposed.  

And when Warren did get some space, the media largely viewed her anti-corruption pitch as an indictment of Trump. But from the outset, Warren made clear that wasn’t the case. “The problem is far bigger than Trump,” she said.

There’s a “crisis of faith” in government now, and fewer than one in five Americans trust that federal policymakers will do the right thing most of the time, she said. In 1958, 73 percent of Americans put their trust in Washington.

“I’m sure the people who make big money off the current system will yell and scream and spend millions of dollars trying to stop these changes.”

Such a lack of trust, she said,” leads people to turn away from democracy,” and helps foster both cynicism and totalitarianism. “Americans are right” to think that government doesn’t work for them, she added. It works for “the rich, powerful, well-connected.”

For that reason, she was offering up what she termed the “most ambitious anti-corruption legislation … since Watergate.”

Her aim? To do away with “soft corruption” by curbing the buying and selling of influence on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

Essentially, the bill would make “soft corruption” illegal. It’s not intended as legislation that would get passed by Congress in one big stroke. It’s more a comprehensive list of all the things lawmakers could do to actually drain the swamp.

“Inside Washington, some of these proposals will be very unpopular, even with some of my friends,” Warren acknowledged. “Outside Washington, I expect that most people will see these ideas as no-brainers and be shocked they’re not already the law.”

This bill is mostly about the evils of lobbying. Warren contends that too many corporate lobbyists have too much sway in Congress, the White House, and even in the courts.

As Congress’s own “in-house expertise” shrinks, she charged, lobbyists fill the vacuum with testimony and slanted studies, “so only lobbyist stories get heard.”

Too many people who actually try to influence the government don’t have to report what they’re doing because they don’t have to register as federal lobbyists to begin with.

Too many lobbyists blithely waltz in and out of government positions, enhancing their ability to influence public policy.

Related: New Frontline in the Battle for Campaign Finance Reform

And too many members of Congress and agency staffers leave public service to take well-paying jobs lobbying their former colleagues.

Her bill would broaden the definition of lobbyist to include anyone who tries to influence federal policy. So the corporate CEO who met with powerful members of key committees would have to register as a lobbyist, not just the lobbying firm the CEO hired to help his company push its agenda.

Warren’s bill would also:

  • Prohibit all former members of Congress, presidents, vice presidents, cabinet secretaries, and federal judges from ever lobbying the federal government.
  • Bar former government staffers from immediately taking cushy jobs lobbying their colleagues with the very corporations their agencies used to oversee. They’d have to wait six years.
  • Bar corporate lobbyists from taking federal jobs for six years after they quit lobbying.
  • Ban any American from taking foreign money — from governments, individuals, or companies — to influence US policy.
  • No longer permit lobbyists to give either gifts or political donations to the public officials they are trying to persuade.
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Other reforms in her package include: preventing senior agency officials and lawmakers from owning and trading individual stocks; increasing transparency at federal courts; and imposing stricter ethics rules on all judges, including members of the Supreme Court.

All these new rules would be enforced by what she termed “a new sheriff” — an independent US Office of Public Integrity, which would have the power to subpoena witnesses, investigate, and fine violators, or refer miscreants to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.

And yes, some reforms were clearly aimed at preventing more Trumpian abuses. The Internal Revenue Service would be required to disclose eight years of tax returns for every candidate for president and vice president, and then annually, while these elected officials hold federal office.

Presidents and vice presidents also could no longer hold onto any business interest or investment that could pose a real or potential conflict of interest.

Warren clearly could not ignore the elephant in the room. The current administration is “the most corrupt in our lifetimes … the biggest, stinkiest” illustration of the problem, she said.

Lewis Powell, memo

Lewis Powell, Jr., author of the Powell Memo, spurred the growth of corporate lobbying. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Library of Congress / Wikimedia

Birth of the Lobbyist

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Even so, for her the evil dates back to the 1970s. Fifty years ago, she recalled, there was no “corporate lobbying industry.” That changed after environmental, consumer, and public health advocates were able to persuade Congress to pass a series of sweeping laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, as well as new regulations to better protect the public from business abuses.

In 1971, she said, “a hotshot corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell” wrote a memo to the US Chamber of Commerce that essentially was “a declaration of war on democracy.”

(The memo urged businesses to “learn the lesson … that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively…” It would require “a scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”)

Two months after he wrote the memo, Powell was nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court. The confidential memo was not uncovered by the FBI, and the Senate failed to scrutinize Powell’s pro-business leanings. The Senate approved him by a vote of 89 to 1.

“The memo was kept secret,” Warren said. A few months after he took his seat on the bench, maverick investigative reporter Jack Anderson exposed it.

Warren anticipated the pushback her reform effort would get, but she was ready with her own rebuttal. “I’m sure the people who make big money off the current system will yell and scream and spend millions of dollars trying to stop these changes,” she said.

“And the all-day-long pundits and Washington insiders who live in the same neighborhoods and eat at the same sushi bars and go to the same book parties will say ‘this will never pass’ and try to color me naïve for even trying. But it’s that kind of self-serving group-think,” she charged, “that’s allowed corruption to spread through this town for decades.”


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Two’s company three’s a crowd! (Puck / Library of Congress).

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7 responses to “Warren’s New Goal: Actually Draining the Swamp”

  1. H Beazley says:

    Warren is just another member of the War Machine who wants to save a failed capitalist system. Americans who remember have had no faith in government since the coup of 1963 or in the MSM that has covered up the truth since that time. I had hoped she might be different but her refusal to challenge the wisdom of our continued aggression against foreign countries proves that she supports the US agenda for continuous military involvement in sovereign nations.

  2. VoxFox says:

    Just ban all Lobbying; make acting as a lobbyist a Federal felony deserving a minimum of ten years jail in a corporate penitentiary. These people are like Plague-Carriers.

  3. AW says:

    Don’t forget those $700,000 speeches that they all love. Would not $5-10,000 be more appropriate?

  4. Scott Fulmer says:

    To break the crisis of confidence in government, you have to confront the CIA. Warren has said nothing about this, ever. She gives the Democratic Party cover from its disaffected “left”, such as the brave Occupy Boston fools she slammed the lid on. She has used her position to speak out within this margin of comfort, only. After all, she was given the Democratic ticket by party delegates in Massachusetts without having to go through a primary, despite registered and worthy contenders. The toughest question she ever had to face was in a TV interview when asked about Iran. Her answer? All options are on the table. Here is where it is difficult to forget her Oklahoma roots, Vietnam combat siblings, and devotion to AuH20. She’s not draining the swamp. She’s rebranding it.

    • Second that!!! Not only the CIA, but NSA, FBI … across the board. These agencies need to be reformed if they continue to exist, along with rigorous checks and balances. They should be out of our educational institutions and medical schools but for job fairs and as retiree teachers — with full disclosure. (Well, the CIA is not even supposed to be operating here…)

      We should all be able to state with certainty what the valid, reliable, and verifiable oversight of these agencies is. See LINKS at ourconstitution.info for information about illegal, unethical, and unconstitutional acts involving these organizations, going back years.

      The power of secrecy and what is considered to be classified material must also be reevaluated, with utmost concern for the rights of an informed public. Much that is classified does not pose a risk to national security and we should applaud those whistleblowers and others attempting to shine lights on injustice and matters of concern. Most certainly the Espionage Act must be reformed so that these brave individuals will feel free to speak, as Our Constitution demands, without risk of any retaliation, including criminal charges.

      It is also apparent that our prison system and aspects of our criminal justice system are widely disparate and antithetical to the notion of reform and a healthy society. The swamp does indeed have a lot of draining to go. We must refocus on our humanity, our role as a leader of safe havens and liberty in the World, and the other fundamental rights our Constitution ensures.

  5. Nigel Cairns says:

    Yes it is pie in the sky. America is at the moment hopelessly corrupt. A recession that wiped out the future for tens of thousands of Americans; persecution of Julian Assange by ALL politicians; earmarks returning; a killer, John McCain lauded as a hero. And our often wealthy politicians don’t give a damn. I think Elizabeth Warren breathes fire in Congress, but does NOTHING.

  6. Robert says:

    Great reporting on the roots of our current crisis! Can you do a series of articles that annotate the Powell Memo and show how each of his proposals have grown into the conservative influence industry?