Dec/Jan 2014

Funding Fathers

To start making sense of the shutdown debacle, follow the money

Chris Lehmann


IT'S PERHAPS AN UNDERSTANDABLE, if by no means a pardonable, oversight to greet the spectacle of a corps of well-dressed, extravagantly staffed, rhetorically skilled lawmakers and imagine that they are devoted to the public's business. No matter that they stand economic reality on its head, and use the routine mechanisms of budget approval to try to block implementation of already enacted federal law upheld by the Supreme Court. Nor did it merit notice in official Washington that as the members of the Tea Party Right strained over and over again to justify the whole unprecedented legislative debauch known as the 2013 government shutdown, they were apparently subscribing en masse (without citing it, of course) to reactionary slave-ocrat John Calhoun's mystic theory of "concurrent majorities." This nullificationist reverie, much like the counterconstitutional fever dream of the House shutdown supporters, holds that ill-specified shared organic "interests" must trump the merely "numerical majorities" that can sway democratic legislatures.

Never mind, as well, that the destructionists behind this systematic bludgeoning of democratic procedure also tried, out of the other sides of their mouths, to invoke narrow polled majorities coming out against the 2010 health-care overhaul—without ever mentioning that still-stronger majorities have consistently and explicitly opposed using the budget process to defund the program. An even more dizzying act of mental gymnastics from our new era of Edward Lear conservatism pivoted around the Tea Party claim that the Affordable Care Act is somehow illegitimate because it drew no bipartisan support, and passed through a budget-reconciliation maneuver. This particularly daring work of revisionist history neglected to note that the Republican leaderships in both chambers made it their primary order of business to intimidate and browbeat any prospective Republican supporter of the measure with the threat of primary challenges and withdrawn fund-raising support—i.e., the very instruments of coercion that Tea Party interests use to enforce ideological fealty in GOP ranks today. This gambit was roughly akin to banning the manufacture of candles and then funding a twenty-four-hour infomercial to curse the darkness.

Such enormous outbursts of incoherence open out onto the great unasked question at the heart of the historic 2013 shutdown debacle: Just who does the Tea Party wing of the House of Representatives actually represent? For all the talk of the way that state legislatures manipulated the results of the 2010 census to gerrymander the hard core of Tea Party House activists into permanently safe districts, the ballot box isn't really the motive force here; the checkbook is. The House—originally conceived as the legislative body closest to the interests of ordinary Americans, thanks to the frequency of its election cycles—is now the breeding ground par excellence of plutocratic rule. As the other enabling conceits of our representative government are exposed as hollow charades, the flow of campaign funds is the only way to make sense of the great spasm of reactionary rage that shuttered the federal government for sixteen days and brought the US economy to the brink of default.

But our public institutions can't acknowledge the baby-simple relationship between campaign fund-raising and policy outcomes—in large part because doing so would expose the breathless play-by-play reportage of tactical feints and counterparries in the corridors of Congress as an empty, baroque entertainment of the pundit class. Put simply, there are no tactics, in the traditional bargaining sense, driving something like the 2013 shutdown—just as there were no genuine national interests at stake in the fraudulent US invasion of Iraq a decade ago. There is only strategy: in the present case, the well-documented conservative-movement strategy not merely to defund the state, but to delegitimize it as a political force.

Instead of calling this putsch by its true name, the pundits and political consultants have all wailed, as the GOP nose-dived to historic lows in public-opinion polling, that party leaders had to do something—anything—to strike a deal and right the course, to save their good name as honest brokers in the Beltway deal-making game. The same pundits duly professed complete bewilderment as the stated goal of the shutdown miasma shifted onto entirely new ground.

In the original conception of the House rebellion, the aim was to delay or defund the implementation of the Affordable Care Act by any means necessary—this was where the fire-breathing, principled keepers of the House GOP caucus elected to dig in and "make a stand," as the unbowed House Speaker John Boehner told George Stephanopoulos in the early days of the confrontation.

But as public support for congressional Republicans and their extortionate mind-set continued to plummet, conservative leaders swiftly abandoned their principled stand and spun the shutdown in a new direction altogether. The shutdown's chief targets were now runaway deficits, entitlement cuts, and fiscal reform, conservative leaders such as Paul Ryan announced—and the Republican army of media surrogates duly flocked to news outlets to parrot the new rationalization of the party's reckless actions.

Opponents of the Right cackle at this desperate rearranging of all the pieces on the chessboard as rank hypocrisy and opportunism: Look at the humiliated losers, the refrain goes, in so many words. They're scrambling to claim any random victory, on any available front, before they finally implode!

In reality, the insurgent theorists of right-wing rebellion have always conducted their assault on the public sector as a multifront war. The mind-set of the New Right that swept Ronald Reagan into office in 1980 was summed up sharply in a 1935 anti–New Deal diatribe by Alfred Jay Nock that would later become a sacred text for the libertarian movement: Our Enemy, the State. And from Reagan onward, the lusty sport of state-smashing became the dominant model of conservatism in power. Reagan deliberately appointed corruptionists and incompetent tyros atop the parts of the federal bureaucracy he despised most heartily, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, while turning others, such as the newly established Office of Industry and Regulatory Affairs, into open playgrounds for private-sector lobbyists and business interests. Along the way, he disastrously deregulated any stretch of the economy he could get his hands on, from the trucking sector to the savings-and-loan industry—the latter debauch resulting in the postwar era's first major bank bailouts, to the tune of more than $150 billion. It's difficult to imagine any more fitting testimony to the "fundamental nature of the entire modern conservative project," as journalist and historian Rick Perlstein spells it out for the purblind Obama policy elite: "They really do believe that a smoothly functioning federal government is the enemy—a Satanic enemy, for the more theologically minded among them."

This was to be a lasting template of antigovernance imprinted on the chaos-fomenting agendas of successive Republican administrations and congressional majorities. It's how policy entrepreneurs such as Douglas Feith, the premier know-nothing champion of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, could end-run the entire foreign-policy apparatus as it then existed, setting up the roving Office of Special Plans in the George W. Bush White House to choreograph the strategic release of fraudulent intelligence, safely out of reach of meddlesome policy professionals and invasion skeptics in the State Department. (The Feith feint was, of course, the handiwork of his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a former House member who helped perfect the smash-the-state strategy back during his own tenure atop the Nixon White House's Office of Economic Opportunity—another roundly detested legacy of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society agenda that Rumsfeld gleefully ran into the ground.)

Following the same playbook, the Bush administration's economic team agreed with GOP lawmakers to act in all deliberate haste to shitcan Securities and Exchange Commission head William Donaldson in 2005 after he evinced some actual interest in reining in the worst excesses of Wall Street. Donaldson's replacement was Christopher Cox, a former California congressman and stalwart Ayn Rand enthusiast who'd collected more than $2 million from business PACs during his House tenure. (Cox, needless to say, now works as a private-sector consultant for Wall Street firms seeking to elude full compliance with the battery of new regulations enacted under the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform law.)

As cases such as Cox's show, there's an obvious through line connecting this vision of right-wing antigovernance as it plays out across the average conservative House member's career: the geyser flow of campaign funds. The lure of these vast reserves of dosh is hard to capture via conventional fund-raising reporting mechanisms monitored by regulatory bodies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission. What's more, in our own post–Citizens United era of open graft in both major political parties, only a small segment of the money that now drives votes and careers in Washington gets reported in the first place.

STILL, THERE ARE SOME quite eye-opening numbers out there. Thomas Ferguson, a political-science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and senior fellow of the Roosevelt Institute, has been analyzing campaign contributions since the 1980s, and advanced a comprehensive investment-driven theory of American democracy in his 1995 book Golden Rule. He and two colleagues, political scientist Paul Jorgensen at the University of Texas–Pan American and statistician Jie Chen at Ferguson's home institution, have done a thorough analysis of corporate funding of the 2012 elections—and in a forthcoming paper, they're reporting that roughly 19 percent of all big-business spending they could identify in congressional races went either to GOP members of the House who belong to the Tea Party caucus or to senators broadly identified as Tea Party advocates, such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. (Earlier this year, DeMint announced his own Chris Cox–style come-to-Jesus moment, resigning his Senate seat for a seven-figure salary heading the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank now enforcing Tea Party orthodoxy through its own post–Citizens United PAC, Heritage Action for America.)

In other words, for all the talk of the shutdown crisis precipitating a virtual civil war between Tea Party insurrectionists and the GOP's traditional funding base, there's no meaningful divide here. The business community and its leased Tea Party mouthpieces share the same basic long-term goals: to continue cutting taxes and to slash away at government social expenditures.

It gets better. Among the biggest bankrollers of Tea Party incumbents in 2012 were commercial banks and their executives—i.e., the very constituencies that, in rhetorical terms at least, Tea Party leaders profess to despise, in their libertarian indignation over the collusion of Wall Street and the Obama White House. "If you count firms that make any contributions at all to these folks, and you check out the money split among the donors, here's the hilarious part: No matter how you do it, the too-big-to-fail banks show up as substantial backers of the Tea Party," Ferguson says. He reports that initially his team "couldn't believe" these findings—and that their implications for the public image of the Tea Party as small-government purists of the most vigilant, liberty-loving stripe had him "rolling in the aisles." Ultimately, though, the joke is on the rest of us: Surveying a wide swath of recent bills to curb abuses and cronyist practices in the financial industry, Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute has found that "there are no substantial issues on which Tea Party Republicans differ from Wall Street." To take just one case in point: the Ted Cruz Victory Committee, the political-action committee for the Texas Tea Party senator, reported its highest fund-raising numbers over the third quarter of 2013—i.e., the period when Cruz mounted his daft and doomed fake filibuster against funding the Affordable Care Act—at more than $800,000, a figure that doubled the PAC's second-quarter showing.

It's true, Ferguson is quick to concede, that the default threat in particular was more than the money behind the Tea Party insurgency had bargained for. That, he explained, is why the Republican leadership was ultimately forced to settle the budget fight short of default. Still, in a 2011 paper focused on the shifting alignments of congressional leadership in concert with the policy agendas of major donors, Ferguson spells out the longer-term trends quite plainly: "The real story here . . . is the emergence of huge blocs of enormous right-wing investors who want to roll back the New Deal. This has been happening for forty years."

This grim money dynamic on the right has plenty of echoes on the other, notionally adversarial side of the partisan aisle. Democrats have long been advertising their own fealty to the investment community, and seeking to exploit brighter-line differences with the GOP on the more dramatic (and happily, still donor-friendly) battlefronts of the culture wars.

That's why when the provisional resolution of this latest chapter in GOP-orchestrated legislative extortion fades from official Washington's memory, a soothing wash of fresh money will cleanse the scene of much of its residual partisan rancor. At that point, the discourse will return to the reassuring table-tennis volleys indicating which political figures and trends have made incremental gains in the latest polling, and the basic terms of the debate over federal spending and government's role in the economy will have shifted yet further to the right. There will almost certainly be renewed talk of a "grand bargain"—i.e., an accord between the leaders of both parties to settle on a mutually palatable pace at which to keep hacking away at social spending while preserving tax cuts for Americans with annual incomes shy of $450,000.

In reality, of course, a grand bargain will be neither. Far from embodying any epic vision of social fairness, it will be another spending agreement cut at the behest of the narrowest cohort of the political-donor class. And (far more to the point) all the pertinent deals, between Congress and its business retainers, will have been worked out well in advance—and far out of public view.

Chris Lehmann is an editor of Bookforum and the author of Rich People Things (Haymarket Books, 2011).

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