Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Eisinger: the madness of revolving door politics, American-style

Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica has a dealbook entry today, A Revolving Door in Washington With Spin, but Less Visibility, with insightful comments about governance. It would be a provocative and shocking article were it not for the utter familiarity of the story it tells about lobbying and lawmaking in America:
Obsess all you’d like about President Obama’s nomination of Mary Jo White to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. Who heads the agency is vital, but important fights in Washington are happening in quiet rooms, away from the media gaze. 
...For lobbyists, the real targets are regulators and staff members for lawmakers.
Eisinger correctly states that while White herself will be subject to public scrutiny, her staff will mostly work in "untroubled anonymity." Cue the revolving door: on Jan. 25, Senate majority leader Harry Reid hired Cathy Koch to be his chief adviser on tax and economic policy. Eisinger points out an oddity:
The news release lists Ms. Koch’s admirable and formidable experience in the public sector. “Prior to joining Senator Reid’s office,” the release says, “Koch served as tax chief at the Senate Finance Committee.”
...[but in fact] immediately before joining Mr. Reid’s office, Ms. Koch wasn’t in government. She was working for a large corporation.
Namely, GE--yes that one, that hugely profitable multinational that just doesn't seem pay tax anywhere, anytime. And the one that can't even get it's own story straight on the issue.  More from Eisinger:
Just as the tax reform debate is heating up, Mr. Reid has put in place a person who is extraordinarily positioned to torpedo any tax reform that might draw a dollar out of G.E. — and, by extension, any big corporation. rules prevent Ms. Koch from meeting with G.E. or working on issues that would affect the company. 
...In a statement, the senator’s spokesman said, “The impulse in some quarters to reflexively cast suspicion on private sector experience is part of what makes qualified individuals reluctant to enter public service.”
But that's a silly thing to say because of course Ms. Koch just did enter public service, so either the spokesman is saying we couldn't get anyone qualified so we had to go with her, or we must imagine that the reluctance has been overcome by some expected reward. We don't have to think too hard to come up with some ideas about what that reward must be.

Eisinger moves on to a particularly fluid relationship between the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Promontory Financial Group, which Eisinger calls "a classic Washington creature that is a private sector mirror image of a regulatory body." Julie Williams, who was chief counsel for the OCC last year, is now at Promontory, while her replacement, Amy Friend, is coming to the OCC from Promontory. Eisinger suggests that maybe they can swap back next year; that would at least save the taxpayers all the moving expenses back and forth between these two offices. Hey, we've got money problems here and it's not looking like they are going to be fixed--every litte bit helps. Eisinger concludes:
Washington today resembles something like the end of “Animal Farm.” People move from one side of the table to the other and up and down the Acela corridor with ease. An outsider looking at a negotiating table would glance from lobbyist to staff member, from colleague to former colleague, from pig to man and from man to pig and find it impossible to say which is which.
What can we expect when this passes for democratic governance? Nothing but more of the same, I think.

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