December 17, 2010 -- Even by the loose standards of Tom Delay, the former Senator recently convicted of money laundering, today's federal political system is corrupt. Delay says as much in this new documentary about the Jack Abramoff scandal, which brought down Delay and even resulted in the conviction of several other people, including another member of Congress, Robert William "Bob" Ney R-Ohio of the U.S. House of Representatives (who appears on camera). According to the documentary, a lot of other people who should not have escaped prosecution got away with the same kind of corruption, including a former leader of the Christian Coalition.
Tom Delay (AKA “The Hammer”) who engineered a Republican majority in Congress, in part through money laundering and in part through helping to gerrymander election districts in Texas, admits to no wrongdoing whatsoever, of course. He defends the system of “pay to play” (donating money for campaigns in return for the creation and passage legislation requested by the donor) as being entirely proper, in part, he says, because the system is transparent. You can see where the money is coming from, where it is going and then determine what the effects of it are.
Unfortunately, that is not true anymore. It may have been in theory true when Tom Delay says that in this documentary, but things have changed for the worse since then, negating his whole argument. Now, it is possible for corporations to donate unlimited sums of money to influence political campaigns, and the source of those donations do not have to be disclosed to the public. Transparency in the system is rapidly decreasing, and there seems little incentive for politicians to change the system. So, by Delay's own standards, the system has become corrupt, although he probably won't admit it. Another thing that has changed is the January 20, 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling which guts federal laws, such as the 2002 McCain–Feingold Act, which attempt to limit corporate influence over elections. Basically, any attempt to wean the political system of the corrupting power of money, is now impossible without a change in the Supreme Court, or the U.S. Constitution itself.
Interestingly, Jack Abramoff and his fellow travelers were never really considered Machiavellian manipulators of the political system. Instead, they believed themselves pure libertarians, true believers in the unfettered power of laissez-faire capitalism to solve all ills, and that government regulation was the source of all problems. In fact, Abramoff, Delay and their fellow travelers saw a Pacific Island chain, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) as a capitalist paradise. There were few government regulations there. It is a haven for huge Chinese garment sweatshop operations. Supplied by immigrant workers, sewing for as little as $1 per day, the CNMI clothing manufacturers could sell the clothing legally labeled as made in the United States, for huge profits in the U.S. mainland. Abramoff's political lobbying firm got large amounts of money from the sweatshop operators of CNMI, which in turn received exemptions from certain U.S. labor and immigration laws which would have cut into their profits. According to the film, some workers are laboring under conditions like indentured servitude and some women have been forced to get abortions to keep working.
When Abramoff lost his contract with CNMI, he went looking for more money and found it in American Indian tribes running casinos. According to the film, Abramoff's firm was hired by one tribe to prevent a competing tribe from opening their own casino, which would have hurt their business. Abramoff got his friend Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, to organize conservative Christians against casino gambling. The tactic worked, the competing casino was stopped. The fallout of the anti-gambling campaign closed another casino run by the Tigua Tribe of El Paso, Tex. Abramoff persuaded Tigua Tribal officials to pay his firm millions of dollars to influence politicians to allow the casino to reopen. Tigua Tribal officials were unaware of Abramoff's role in closing their casino in the first place.
Eventually, Abramoff got too greedy with the tribes and they rebelled, doing their own investigations, pooling resources and leaking information to reporters. The Abramoff empire collapsed as a result of the publicity and the investigations that followed. Its various operations were exposed, including using dummy corporations and think tanks to hide the money trail from one lobbying firm to another. A 2006 report on the scandal indicates the Mississippi Choctaw tribe tribe agreed to launder money because “Ralph Reed did not want to be paid directly by a tribe with gaming interests (source: Wikipedia).” The film exposes almost astronomical levels of hypocrisy in both politicians and lobbyists.
According to the film, Abramoff was unusual only because he was caught. The kind of “pay to play” culture cultivated by Tom Delay has not abated with the Abramoff investigation. It continues worse than ever, according to the film. The film argues that deregulation engineered by Delay and other true believers in laissez-faire capitalism led directly to the 2008 global financial collapse and the bailout and multi billion dollar bonus scandal that followed. The film argues the government no longer belongs to the people, but to the corporations who control Congress with their large political donations. They buy the legislation they want and Congress is the puppet that dances to the tune of the corporations. The film contrasts this cynical view of Washington politics with the idealistic notion of politics found in the famous Frank Capra film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Sorry, but Mr. Smith is dead and corporations can live forever. This film rates an A.
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