6 Insane Details of Corrupt Politics That Movies Get Wrong
We try to stay positive here at Cracked, but we're starting to suspect that the American political system is fucked. We know it sounds crazy, but hear us out -- Congress' approval is at an all-time low, and a record number of Americans now believe that government corruption is widespread. So how the hell did things get this bad?
We wanted to find out, so we sat down with three people who could shine some light on this mystery: the former aid to a high-level career politician, a member of the Electoral College, and the infamous former lobbyist Jack Abramoff (no, really). Here's what we learned:
Politics Turns Politicians Into Helpless Children
You hear pundits and such say that politicians are "out of touch" with the common folk. But you don't realize how comically true this is until you see it up close. A woman we'll call "Alice" worked as the chief aid to one of the men who ran the state of California, which in reality meant she played the role of babysitter to a grown man for several years of her life. He was a career politician, the kind of man who hadn't had to drive his own car or write his own checks for years, because obviously the people who govern us shouldn't be expected to live anything like a normal life.
Barack Obama doesn't even fly his own plane.
"There's a culture in the capitol: you get drivers, you get a staff, you get an office, and you're instantly gifted with a lot of money from your campaign and your 'officeholder' account. ... It's like being some sort of weird celebrity. Not to mention the 'Secret Ticket Phone Line' for the legislator and their staffers." What she's referring to there is a dedicated line for politicians to request tickets to NBA games, etc., a line that, incidentally, is run by British Petroleum. Don't worry -- the law doesn't consider it bribery. The law barely considers anything to be bribery, in fact. But more on that later.
After all, never having to pay for things out of your own pocket is far from the only perk that separates these people from the rest of us. Career politicians can go decades without driving their own cars, for example -- to the point that they eventually forget how. "When [California] Governor Gray Davis was ousted, the CHP and his security detail had to teach him how to drive again, and how to pump his own gas, all before he left office. There's a hidden DMV inside the state capitol. It's unmarked, and it has screwy hours, and technically anyone in the public can go to it, but good luck going in. So they don't even have to stand in line at the DMV."
Standing in line at the DMV may be the only thing that binds the rest of us together.
So, yeah, spend a couple of decades at the heights of power and you'll forget how to do even the most basic tasks. In other words, you forget what everyday life is like for a normal person. Like they were frozen in a glacier and now have to return to a world that is new and strange to them.
"When my boss left for the private sector he'd forgotten how to do stuff like budget time for parking. He couldn't conduct business when he was driving anymore, there was no personal assistant to organize his son's birthday party or get an authorization letter to travel internationally because he'd forgotten his passport or to call an exterminator because raccoons had taken up residence in his attic. ... I had my boss call me late at night from across the country. He was in New York and broke out with shingles. He needed me to find him a clinic because he couldn't manage to Google it himself."
"I just keep getting pictures of roofs!"
It's All About Fashion and Sucking Up
Another person we spoke to, whom we'll call "Jimothy," was a member of the 2012 Electoral College and is a well-connected member of the Republican Party. He pointed out that the halls of power are strangely like the halls of your high school -- politicians are as judgmental about fashion faux pas as a bunch of mean teenage girls:
"The guys who show up in the same suit all the time get made fun of. It's a total bullshit thing to do, but politicians are catty. Orrin Hatch wears makeup, even if he's only in front of 10 or 15 people."
We knew it.
"There's a country-club cattiness about it. 'He's been driving that same car for three years,' even though when you're with constituents you brag about having an old car. It's a status thing. The rest of it is ... a big pissing contest. Who has the most money for the next campaign? Who has the biggest PAC? Who had Karl Rove come speak at their fundraiser?"
This obsession with fashion and appearances turns many politicians' campaigns into organizations made up entirely of their friends and whichever advisers are trendy that year. According to Jimothy, that creates a bubble around them that makes it even harder to see what's going on outside that clique. And that, he says, is why grassroots groups like the Tea Party have been so dangerous to establishment politicians.
That, and the hats.
"The Tea Party was a case of essentially catching the party with their pants down. Your entire campaign staff is made up of friends and relatives and then you're unprotected when a real threat comes along."
Legal Bribery Happens All the Time
You probably hear a lot of people complaining about "lobbyists" -- the shady types who go to Washington on behalf of some corporation or special interest and grease the palms of Congress to make sure the vote goes their way. Maybe the most famous/infamous lobbyist of all time is Jack Abramoff, a name you may know from a massive scandal that was in the news a few years ago. He was one of the most successful lobbyists in Washington until, like Icarus, he flew too close to the sun and wound up spending four years in prison. To learn more about the dark side of lobbying, we spoke to someone with inside knowledge of how Abramoff worked. That is, Abramoff himself.
Some call him the Jack Abramoff of Jack Abramoffs.
Right off, he told us it's not as simple as walking up to a senator with a hundred-dollar bill in your palm and saying, "Soooo ... about these new oil-drilling regulations, could my friend Ben Franklin get you to change your mind?" There are actual laws against that. But don't worry, there are lots of other ways to buy influence:
"You need a quid pro quo for it to be statutory bribery [i.e.: I vote this way, you pay me]. Few in Washington would want to cross that line. Instead, they bribe in a far more palatable and legal way. They provide a stream of benefits over time. They take Congress to ball games, dinner, golf, and concerts. They provide thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. The congressman, in turn, being grateful for all this bounty, lends an ear or hand to the lobbyist when needed. You scratch my back and I scratch yours. Welcome to Washington."
Where the wind smells like swamp and the traffic drives men to drink.
"Once we needed a letter from Majority Leader Harry Reid, opposing the approval of a casino in Louisiana for a tribe that was encroaching our client's market. I had on my staff one of Reid's former staff members, and he served as the conduit to Reid's office. Typically, our requests were matched by Reid's folks with requests for money. As I recall, in this case, they wanted a $50,000 contribution to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, though they never would have been so crass as to be direct about it. They made sure we understood, though. We complied and got our letter. That's how things worked, I am sorry to say."
OK, but ultimately don't all of these people answer to the voters? You can't stay in office supporting unpopular positions, and if you lose your next election you'll have to actually pay money for your Wizards tickets like some kind of asshole. Luckily, lobbyists can take their lobbying right to the public:
"When we had ideological fights and issues linked to our lobbying campaigns -- which was most of the time -- I'd find a think tank scholar or activist who shared our approach and pay them to pen a piece supporting our position. This was just one small part of a multi-million-dollar lobbying effort, and usually only involved small payments, but it was one of those things that I look back on now and blanch."
It turns out the price of integrity is roughly the price of a nice laptop.
So, how much cash are we talking about here? Well, the 2012 election was the most expensive political election in history. You probably heard no end of pundits complaining about that. But in the same year, lobbyists spent $6.7 billion bribing their way through D.C. -- $500 million more than Romney, Obama, and all their PACs spent combined. And it gets worse ...
Lobbyists Are Everywhere, Operating Without Rules
First of all, there's a strange kind of etiquette to this sort of thing -- you don't just walk into a congressperson's office, open your suit jacket to reveal that it's been lined with $100 bills, and seductively ask if he wants to try it on. You have to ease into it, usually with a friendly game of golf. But you must be patient:
You must have terrible taste in pants, too. Though no one's quite sure why.
"Most people don't want to be lobbied on the golf course," Abramoff says. "So the better etiquette is to use the golf game as a four- to five-hour opportunity to be alone with a congressman and build a relationship. Then later -- in the clubhouse or on the phone -- you can transact your business. A smart lobbyist doesn't try to pitch a new Senate bill while the senator is trying to make a birdie putt, or, worse, while he slashes at his fifth attempt to get out of a sand trap. ... It's kind of like going on a date. You talk about your family, golf, and anything you have in common. The banter is positive and fun, not lobbying or legislative business."
Now, being a lobbyist clearly confers a lot of power, and, as such, you'd think there might be some sort of legal check on said power. But, legislation is influenced by lobbyists, including the legislation intended to govern lobbyists, so you already know where this is going:
"The law says if you spend less than 20 percent of your time actually lobbying for a particular client, you don't have to register as a lobbyist for them. I never spent more than 5 percent of my time lobbying, but it never dawned on me that I wasn't a lobbyist! Most of what I did was strategic design, command and control; I could've easily not registered as a lobbyist ... legally. That's why you see a parade of ex-congressmen and senators claiming they are strategic advisers, like Tom Daschle -- or, even more hilariously, history professors, like Newt Gingrich."
No joke we can write is funnier than this picture.
And that is the trick, right there -- everyone on both sides of the aisle claims to hate lobbyists, to the point that calling someone a lobbyist is almost a slur. But if you want all of the inside power of a lobbyist without the stigma, just don't call yourself one -- there isn't even a rule requiring the use of sarcastic finger quotes when you say your job title. The result is that for every one lobbyist who actually registers, there's another one bounding gleefully into the shadows.
Even Nations Need Lobbyists
If you think these lobbyists are just shills for big corporations trying to negotiate tax breaks or for the right to dump toxic waste into a public park, you're still thinking small. Entire countries see their influence rise and fall according to how well they play the lobbyist game. For example, Egypt -- the new president there has cracked down on the radical Islamic Muslim Brotherhood in a way that you'd think would make him Washington's best friend, in a "The enemy of my enemy" sort of way. Yet, the USA continues to withhold foreign aid. Abramoff thinks he knows why:
"They have no lobbyists in Washington, and so they are not getting heard. Here's a guy leading a popular revolt with a military that we trained, we funded, and we helped create -- and he is facing sanctions. Part of his problem is that he has no lobbyists. They're basically left unrepresented. It happens every time when someone who doesn't understand Washington goes up against someone who does. They lose."
What good are things like "armies" and "millions of people" when you don't have the right ad-men?
Saudi Arabia has spent more than $100 million on lobbyists since 2000, all with the goal of building good will toward their government. In the first month of 2014, five different nations signed lobbying contracts. Japan spent $25,000 on a lobbyist just to make sure the state of Kansas uses the term "Sea of Japan" and not "East Sea" in their textbooks. It turns out ambassadors and diplomats aren't nearly as useful as a handful of smooth-talking D.C. insiders.
"For a foreign nation, it is a must to have sapient advisers who can guide them, because no foreign ambassador is going to understand the nuances of Washington, nor have the same sway on Capitol Hill as someone who used to be in Congress, or someone who has worked around the Hill for years and knows everybody."
Basically, think of lobbyists as political Sherpas, guiding lost foreigners up Himalayan mountains of bullshit.
Maybe "Himalayan" is putting it a little small.
Lobbyists Can Destroy Politicians Who Oppose Them
The upshot of having powerful, wealthy lobbyists is that they do give small groups a way to "talk" to Washington. Take the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, otherwise known as the CNMI. They're one of several U.S. territories (places like Puerto Rico and Guam fall into the same category) which means they're part of the USA, sort of, but don't get to elect representatives to vote in Congress. So when these guys want a voice, they've got to pay for a man like Abramoff to get cozy with legislators to ensure their case is heard, and that's what they did. Sometimes, it turns ugly:
Politician hairstyles being what they are, "ugly" was kind of a given.
"In the '90s, Congressman Bob Frank from New Jersey was trying to push a 'Made in the USA' bill in Congress. One of the provisions would have smacked the CNMI hard. Frank was a Republican and, until then, most Republicans were supportive of the Marianas. I went to see him late one night, with his chief of staff. After a few hours of discussion about the history and policies of the CNMI, he rethought his bill -- at least so he said. He committed that he wouldn't move forward unless we had another discussion first."
That turned out to be a lie, according to Abramoff. The first thing the next morning, the congressman introduced his bill and basically flipped Abramoff a legislative bird. And while you and I are used to getting ignored and occasionally screwed with by politicians, we don't have millions of dollars behind us. Lobbyists can make it clear who has the real power:
"He was running for governor. I raised a bunch of money for his opponent in the primary and made sure everyone knew I was doing it. He lost his primary. No other Republican tried to slap the CNMI while I was a lobbyist."
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For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Adventures of the World's Biggest Pot Smuggler and 6 Horrors of Being an Atheist in a Fundamentalist Country.
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