By Adam Sanders.
When we read the news, or even watch television and films, we often imagine that the worlds of politicians and businesses are discreet, if interdependent, entities. Politicians may curry favor with corporate donors, and corporations may be involved in activism or influence campaigns, but otherwise each world’s denizens are not members of the other world. This is far from the case. The worlds of government and business are in fact connected by a process known as the Revolving Door. This career corridor and the incestuous relationship it facilitates need to be examined to truly understand contemporary U.S. politics.
First, we have to answer the question of what exactly the Revolving Door is. The best way to do this is to examine the origins of the phenomenon. The seeds of such a phenomenon actually go back to the immediate Postwar Era, with the development of the “Iron Triangle.” The Iron Triangle was an unintentional outgrowth (and arguably bastardization of) the mainstream U.S. military-industrial complex. To grossly oversimplify, the Iron Triangle (or an Iron Triangle, for there are smaller sub-versions of the phenomenon) begin with bureaucratic politics.
Clearly, any given agency has an explicit mandate over a statutorily pre-defined administrative bailiwick. However, as is true with any human institution anywhere in the world since the dawn of time, agencies seek to further their own existence for its own sake. As a result, agencies will commonly lobby Congress in aid of promoting their continued existence and/or funding. Successful lobbying efforts result in Congress and congressional committees seeking ways to aid and promote agencies in exchange for political advantage, irrespective of the administrative or policy logic of the agencies in question. Furthermore, agencies lobby interest groups to promote the causes that justify the continued functioning of the agency in question. Thus, you have the three points of a given Iron Triangle: Congress, agencies, and special interests groups. These three points are the “buildings”, if one wills, to which the Revolving Door enables access.
The root cause of the Revolving Door itself began with a seemingly innocent way of meeting a mundane, but important need in government. Specifically, Congress needed a way to access expertise to advise them on matters where lawmakers lacked knowledge or experience. After all, no matter how well educated or how much experience a person has, they cannot know everything. Yet all lawmakers are expected to vote on a plethora of bills that all require extremely detailed and technical knowledge about a colossal array of policy areas. Enter the lobbyists.
Of course, everyone knows that lobbyists’ main function is to pester lawmakers into backing the policy agendas of their respective employers, be it corporations or advocacy groups. But one must consider that in order for lobbyists to be able to argue in favor of policies in a particular area, they must be knowledgeable about the subject matter. For example, an agricultural corporation might be attempting to get Congress to eliminate regulations on chicken farming. The lobbyist would then have to make a plausible argument that reducing the regulations in question would be better for the industry and consumer. Which would require the lobbyist to learn a great deal (by layman’s standards) about chicken farming. This is where the secondary function of lobbyists comes into play. By itself, this seems innocent and purely beneficial. The problem is what kind of people usually become lobbyists. Often, lobbyists are former board members of corporations. They can also be former politicians. But former politicians can also be business executives. Furthermore, Former business executives can be politicians. Sometimes, one person can be all three in the space of one career. Therein lies the problem.
A former politician can become a lobbyist that uses their personal connections in order to secure favorable treatment for a corporate employer. He or she may also be tempted to vote in favor of the agenda of a corporation where they intend to seek employment after leaving politics. Politicians may be tempted to put untoward solicitation to lobbyists to grease their palms in exchange for policy favors. Lobbying creates the Revolving Door of lobbyists, politicians, and businessmen. Of course, one may wonder if this is just what happens in theory, due to all the laws, regulations, and constitutional protections in the U.S. system. It most certainly is not purely theory.
Take for example the legendary example of the Jack Abramoff scandal of the 2000s. To make a very long and gory story short, until 2006, Abramoff was not a just a lobbyist. He was the lobbyist. The dark magic and sorcery Abramoff was capable of made him the highest paid lobbyist in Washington for years. He did not come to you. You came to him. His reach was international. His clients included, but were by no means limited to, Russian energy companies, the Sudanese government, and Native American casinos. But eventually, his way of ethically playing fast and loose caught up with him, particularly with the bribery schemes involving politicians and embezzling money from his own clients. In 2006, Abramoff was sentenced to six years in prison for tax evasion, conspiracy, making false statements, and fraud. To be sure, he lost in the end, but as the pretentiously dressed doorman operating the revolving door, he could function for an appalling amount of time in such a manner before eventually ending up in prison. To be sure, Abramoff is just one example of how the revolving door often works in Washington.
More recent examples include Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. Both lobbyists are more commonly known for their ties to Donald Trump, the Russian hacking during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and the Ukraine Scandal in 2018. However, the two men had been operating a lobbying firm together since the 1980s. Manafort’s involvement in Republican politics include work for the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Dole Campaigns during the 1980s and 1990s. Stone’s political and lobbying career goes back even further, to his work on Nixon’s reelection campaign.
The firm that Stone and Manafort operated with Charlie Black (Black, Manafort, & Stone), garnered controversy during its heyday by often representing the interests of foreign strongmen in the developing world. Notable clients of this type included then-Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, and Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Soko. With that in mind, Manafort’s work with former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych is not surprising. In truth, Manafort’s work was a continuation of the type of activity and clientele with which he engaged during his long international lobbying career. As can be seen in the case of Stone and Manafort’s careers, there is often a blurry line between lobbying, campaigning, advising, domestic, and international politics. Lobbyists like Manafort and Stone effortlessly move through these feeble barriers like curtains of beads. To be sure, the other side of the aisle has its own fixers.
A good example of a Democratic-aligned lobbyist is John Podesta. The Podesta Group, a firm Podesta founded along with his brother Tony, has worked for entities such as Wal-Mart, The European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, Lockheed Martin, and BP, just to name a few. Podesta’s organization has been involved in a number of investigations of its own. These include overlapping probes involving Paul Manafort’s work for the 2016 Trump Campaign. Podesta’s lobbying work is in addition to his career as a Democratic advisor to Barack Obama and Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff. Thus, the Revolving Door is indeed a bipartisan phenomenon. There are still yet a number of examples that warrant honorable mentions.
Dick Cheney was previously the CEO of Halliburton prior to his becoming Vice President in 2001. Even at the time his connections to the company were controversial, and only became more so as the decade wore on. This was because Halliburton was an oil company, one that received a $7 billion single bidder contract to drill for oil in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, which Cheney fully supported. John C. Dugan was previously a Treasury Department official who strongly opposed the Glass-Steagall Act. Unsurprisingly, he had been lobbying over a decade for the banking industry. He is now employed by Citigroup. Linda Fisher had previously worked for Monsanto and DuPont and before joining the Second Bush Administration’s EPA. In that role, she helped oversee the regulation of chemicals and pesticides. To be sure, all of these people brought policy expertise to their positions but as one can see, in government the Revolving Door often leads to the foxes guarding the hen house.
In conclusion, this raises the question of how voters are supposed to make decisions on candidates with this large, murky network in mind. The first significant step for voters is the research, research, and research again. Who did candidates work with and/or for? Not just firms, but people too. Were they CEOs or corporate presidents? Were they lobbyists? Did they work with people who are lobbyists now? Do they work with people who are CEOs now? The answers to these questions reveal worlds in regard to what politicians might do when in office irrespective of stated positions, ideologies, or policy agendas. The second, and most important step voters can take to keep the door from revolving so much is to vote like hell. In fact, there are a couple of tools out there that can inform voters in specific ways. OpenSecrets is a non-profit site that allows anyone to look up any politician, organization, political party, or donor and see who donated to whom and when, free of charge. Additionally, BuyingSmarter is an app that informs consumers as to which major businesses support and/or donate to which political parties and candidates. This allows consumers to make sure they patronize businesses that share their own values.
Lobbyists are private sector employees who can be quite experienced, knowledgeable, and competent in their respective bailiwicks. This is all good and well. But voters need to cry foul at the ballot box the instant it looks like the Revolving Door has let the foxes into the hen house.
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