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Posts Tagged ‘Sleaze’

I sometimes assert that the greatest enemies of freedom in Washington are mortgage payments and tuition bills. When people give me a blank stare, I say that I’m joking, but I use the opportunity to explain that the desire for easy wealth (and the lifestyle it enables) lures many Republicans to become lobbyists and to promote policies that they almost surely understand are bad for America.

These GOPers, who do the wrong thing to line their own pockets, are the worst people in Washington. They presumably first got involved in policy because they recognized government is a cesspool, but eventually got corrupted and decide it is a hot tub. To put it mildly, this gets me very agitated. For instance:

I have slammed a former Reagan Administration official for defending earmarks. I think it is morally offensive that he gets rich by facilitating the transfer of money from taxpayers to powerful interest groups.

I have condemned the former Senate Republican leader for defending Obamacare. I think it is disgusting that he puts his lobbying income ahead of America’s best interests.

I have denounced Illinois Republican legislators for killing school choice. I think it is downright nauseating that they condemn inner-city children to terrible schools in exchange for campaign contributions from teacher unions.

So you won’t be surprised to know that I am on the verge of going postal after reading a report from The Hill about all the Republican lobbyists who are getting lucrative contracts to fight against the Tea Party agenda and lobby on behalf of big government. Here are the utterly nauseating details.

A stable of former GOP aides has been hired by public television stations, children’s hospitals and other interest groups that fear they’ll be targeted for spending cuts by the Republican House.

Most of the aides left Congress years ago, but many still have close ties to senior Republicans on Capitol Hill, including Speaker John Boehner (Ohio). They’ve been hired to try to convince the new GOP Congress that some public spending is worth continuing and not reducing.

An advocacy group for the Association of Public Television Stations, for example, has hired GOP lobbyists John Feehery and Marc Lampkin of Quinn Gillespie & Associates to fight off budget cuts.

…A review of lobbying disclosure records by The Hill shows the public television stations are hardly alone in recruiting GOP muscle.

A number of associations hoping to retain federal funding have recently added GOP lobbyists with connections to the new majority. The hiring binge indicates Republican lobbyists are earning dividends from their party’s re-taking of the House in November and points to the headaches in store for a Republican House that wants to take a hatchet to public spending.

Targets of GOP budget cuts say they need all the help they can get from the coming GOP-led onslaught. “Everyone is going to make their case for government support for their projects,” said one GOP lobbyist.

…The California High-Speed Rail Authority has hired Ogilvy Government Relations’ Drew Maloney, a former aide to DeLay, to work on retaining federal grants for high-speed rail.

…Williams & Jensen has registered to lobby for AARP to work on senior-citizen issues and President Obama’s deficit commission report. Prominent Republican lobbyist Steve Hart is among those working for the group, which wants to make sure the new healthcare law is not repealed.

…The National Association of Children’s Hospitals (NACH) has hired former Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) of Clark Lytle & Geduldig to lobby for the reauthorization of the Children’s Hospitals Graduate Medical Education program, which uses $317.5 million in federal funding a year.

Some of my Republican friends sometimes respond by asserting that Democrats are worse, but I grade on a curve. Democrats seek to make government bigger because they believe in statism. So it’s not terribly surprising or philosophically inconsistent for them to become lobbyists and get rich pushing to expand the burden of government (though some Democrats lobby for things that are not completely consistent with a left-wig agenda, such as special tax breaks or defense contracts, so it’s not a black-and-white divide).

Republicans, however, tell voters that they believe in small government and individual liberty. So when GOP politicians and staffers decide to get rich by lobbying for bigger government, that is more disgusting.

Doing the wrong thing is bad. But doing the wrong they when you know it is wrong is even worse.

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The internal revenue code is nightmarishly complex, as illustrated by this video. Americans spend more than 7 billion hours each year in a hopeless effort to figure out how to deal with more than 7 million words of tax law and regulation.

Why does this mess exist? The simple answer is that politicians benefit from the current mess, using their power over tax laws to raise campaign cash, reward friends, punish enemies, and play politics. This argument certainly has merit, and it definitely helps explain why the political class is so hostile to a simple and fair flat tax.

But a big part of the problem is that tax lawyers dominate the tax-lawmaking process. Almost all the decision-making professionals at the tax-writing committees (Ways & Means Committee in the House and Finance Committee in the Senate) are lawyers, as are the vast majority of tax policy people at the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

This has always rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, some lawyers are needed if for no other reason than to figure out how new loopholes, deductions, credits, and other provisions can be integrated into Rube-Goldberg monstrosity of existing law.

But part of me has always wondered whether lawyers deliberately or subconsciously make the system complex because it serves their interests. I know many tax lawyers who are now getting rich in private practice by helping their clients navigate the complicated laws and regulations that they helped implement. For these people, the time they spent on Capitol Hill, in the Treasury, or at the IRS was an investment that enables today’s lucrative fees.

I freely admit that this is a sour perspective on how Washington operates, but it certainly is consistent with the “public choice” theory that people in government behave in ways that maximize their self interest.

There’s now an interesting book that takes a broader look at this issue, analyzing the extent to which the legal profession looks out for its own self interest. Written by Benjamin H. Barton, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, The Lawyer-Judge Bias in the American Legal System explains that the legal profession has self-serving tendencies.

Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, interviews Professor Barton about his new book.

I freely confess that I’m looking at this issue solely through my narrow prism of tax policy. But since Barton’s thesis meshes with my observations that tax lawyers benefit from a corrupt tax system, I’m sympathetic to the notion that the problem is much broader.

One of the most quoted lines from Shakespeare’s Henry VI is, “let’s kill all the lawyers.” But rather than making lawyer jokes, it would be a better idea to figure out how to limit the negative impact of self-serving behavior – whether by lawyers or any other profession that might misuse the coercive power of government.

This is one of many reasons why decentralization is a good idea. If people and businesses have the freedom to choose the legal system with the best features, that restrains the ability of an interest group – including lawyers – to manipulate any one system for their private advantage. This new study by Professors Henry Butler and Larry Ribstein is a good explanation of why allowing “choice of law” yields superior results.

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I’ve always rejected coercive redistribution, particularly when imposed by the federal government.

But some types of redistribution are worse than others, and when big business and big government get in bed together, ordinary people are the ones who get screwed.

This is why Obama’s supposed “move to the center” is a bunch of nonsense.

Tim Carney is the go-to guy on this issue, and his column this morning in the Washington Examiner exposes the real meaning of Obama’s recent appointments of a “banker” and a “CEO.”

Let’s start with Bill Daley, the supposed banker who will be Obama’s new Chief of Staff. Does this signal a move to the right, as some left-wingers fear? That might be the case if Obama had appointed a real banker like John Allison of BB&T, who wants government to get out of the way and believes banks should sink or swim without bailouts or subsidies. But, as Tim explains, that is not the attitude of Bill Daley, who is more akin to Jim Taggart, the rent-seeking businessman in Atlas Shrugged.

Check out Daley’s resume. In the 1990s, he ran Amalgamated Bank, owned by a union and described by the Chicago Sun-Times as “one of the city’s most politically connected financial institutions.” Bill’s brother, Mayor Richard Daley, kept the city’s money on deposit at Amalgamated. Later, Bill held a seat on Fannie Mae’s board, pocketing six-figure compensation from the government-sponsored enterprise that used a housing bubble and an implicit government guarantee to fill a slush fund for well-connected Democrats — until taxpayers bailed it out in 2008. This is Obama’s kind of businessman: a banker who leverages his political connections for profit.

Or what about Obama’s appointment of Jeff Immelt of General Electric? Does this mean Obama wants to unleash the power of free enterprise? That would be welcome news, but GE has morphed into a corrupt company that specializes in fleecing taxpayers (a very sad development since GE once sponsored Ronald Reagan). Once again, Tim hits the nail on the head with a devastating indictment.

GE, which marches in sync with government, pocketing subsidies, profiting from regulation, and lobbying for more of both. …Obama bragged GE would be selling to a power plant in Samalkot, India. That sale is no triumph of free trade — Obama’s Export-Import Bank is providing at least $400 million in subsidized financing to grease the skids. Subsidies are GE’s lifeblood, and Immelt’s own words make that clear. In his op-ed announcing his appointment, Immelt called for a “coordinated commitment among business, labor and government…” He also advocated “partnership between business and government…” This is Immelt’s style. …wherever Obama has led, GE has followed. Obama has championed cap and trade in greenhouse gasses, and GE has started a business dedicated to creating and trading greenhouse gas credits. As Obama expanded subsidies on embryonic stem cells, GE opened an embryonic stem-cell business. Obama pushed rail subsidies, and GE hired Linda Daschle — wife of Obama confidant Tom Daschle — as a rail lobbyist. GE, with its windmills, its high-tech batteries, its health care equipment, and its smart meters, was the biggest beneficiary of Obama’s stimulus. To get these gears in sync isn’t cheap: The company has spent $65.7 million on lobbying during the Obama administration — more than any other company by far. So much for Obama’s war on lobbyists.

In other words, appointing Daley and Immelt does not mean a change in policy. These are people who want a bigger government because these are people who have learned to line their pockets when government has more power. They may have different motives than traditional leftists, but the result is the same. As I’ve noted before, my former Cato colleague Will Wilkinson said it best when he wrote that, “…the more power the government has to pick winners and losers, the more power rich people will have relative to poor people.”

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Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner has a great piece looking at the utterly indefensible panoply of ethanol subsidies and handouts that screw consumers and taxpayers in order to line the pockets of the politically powerful. Unfortunately, several senior GOP lawmakers have unseemly ties to the lobbyists for the industry. So this is a test, but don’t expect a passing grade.

Ethanol fuel (especially ethanol distilled from corn) is subsidized in dozens of ways by governments at all levels. Two of the longest-running subsidies — a 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol, and 45-cent tax credit for every gallon blended with gasoline — expire on Dec. 31, making them a top priority for industry lobbyists during the lame-duck session.

…In recent years, Americans have learned about the downsides of ethanol subsidies. The 2005 and 2007 energy bills mandated the use of ethanol, igniting a corn boom, which crowded out other crops, contributing to spikes in food prices. Ethanol was even blamed for tortilla riots in Mexico.

Growing and distilling ethanol uses immense amounts water (contributing to river and aquifer depletion) and energy (some scientists argue that more energy goes into making a gallon of ethanol than is contained in that gallon). The added corn demand means more fertilizer production and use, adding to harmful runoff, which is blamed for “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico that choke out aquatic life.

There are plenty of policy reasons to kill ethanol subsidies, but historically, a powerful lobby has kept them alive. And while the GOP talks about free markets, Republican lawmakers are cozier with the ethanol lobby than Democrats are. Republicans raised more than Democrats from Poet, the nation’s largest ethanol maker. Former Republican Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa is now the president of Growth Energy, a leading pro-ethanol lobby.

Presumptive incoming House Ways & Means Chairman Dave Camp has long supported ethanol subsidies, as has Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley. Republican coziness with corn growers and ethanol distillers could outweigh sound policy considerations.

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I’m an economist, so I should probably be most agitated about the economic consequences of TARP, such as moral hazard and capital malinvestment. But when I read stories about how political insiders (both in government and on Wall Street) manipulate the system for personal advantage, I want to go postal.

Yes, TARP was economically misguided. But the bailout also was fundamentally corrupt (as are so many things when government gets too big). And it was a form of corruption that lined the pockets of the ruling class. I don’t like it when lower-income people use the political system to take money from upper-income people, but I get completely nauseated/angry/disgusted when upper-income people use the coercive power of government to steal money from lower-income people.

Now, to add insult to injury, we’re being fed an unsavory gruel of lies and deception as the political class tries to cover up its sleazy behavior. Here’s a story from Bloomberg about the Treasury Department’s refusal to obey the law and comply with a FOIA request. A Bloomberg reporter wanted to know about an insider deal to put taxpayers on the line to guarantee a bunch of Citigroup-held securities, but the government thinks that people don’t have a right to know how their money is being funneled to politically-powerful and well-connected insiders.

The late Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman asked the U.S. Treasury in January 2009 to identify $301 billion of securities owned by Citigroup Inc. that the government had agreed to guarantee. He made the request on the grounds that taxpayers ought to know how their money was being used. More than 20 months later, after saying at least five times that a response was imminent, Treasury officials responded with 560 pages of printed-out e-mails — none of which Pittman requested. They were so heavily redacted that most of what’s left are everyday messages such as “Did you just try to call me?” and “Monday will be a busy day!” None of the documents answers Pittman’s request for “records sufficient to show the names of the relevant securities” or the dates and terms of the guarantees.

Here’s another reprehensible example of sleazy behavior. The Treasury Department, for all intents and purposes, lied when it recently claimed that the AIG bailout would cost “only” $5 billion. This has triggered some pushback from Capitol Hill GOPers, as reported by the New York Times, but it is highly unlikely that anyone will suffer any consequences for this deception. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds, “laws, honesty, and integrity, like taxes, are for the little people.”

The United States Treasury concealed $40 billion in likely taxpayer losses on the bailout of the American International Group earlier this month, when it abandoned its usual method for valuing investments, according to a report by the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. …“The American people have a right for full and complete disclosure about their investment in A.I.G.,” Mr. Barofsky said, “and the U.S. government has an obligation, when they’re describing potential losses, to give complete information.” …“If a private company filed information with the government that was just as misleading and disingenuous as what Treasury has done here, you’d better believe there would be calls for an investigation from the S.E.C. and others,” said Representative Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He called the Treasury’s October report on A.I.G. “blatant manipulation.” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he thought “administration officials are trying so hard to put a positive spin on program losses that they played fast and loose with the numbers.” He said it reminded him of “misleading” claims that General Motors had paid back its rescue loans with interest ahead of schedule.

P.S. Allow me to preempt some emails from people who will argue that TARP was a necessary evil. Even for those who think the financial system had to be recapitalized, there was no need to bail out specific companies. The government could have taken the approach used during the S&L bailout about 20 years ago, which was to shut down the insolvent institutions. Depositors were bailed out, often by using taxpayer money to bribe a solvent institution to take over the failed savings & loan, but management and shareholders were wiped out, thus  preventing at least one form of moral hazard.

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Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is an expert on corruption and sleaze inside the beltway, and his column this morning is a perfect example. He shows how corrupt insiders in Alaska use something known as the “Rent-an-Eskimo” scam to pull in hundreds of millions of tax dollars from no-bid federal contracts. These insiders, meanwhile, steers big bucks to Washington lobbyists (almost all of whom worked for politicians like Lisa Murkowski), who then provide campaign cash to the corrupt officials who pass the laws that enable the circle of graft to continue. Here are some key passages from Tim’s column.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s write-in candidacy is being funded by $100,000 contributions from a handful of Alaska corporations that have been handsomely subsidized by the federal government. These six-figure donors have pulled in billions of taxpayer dollars thanks to special legislative favors from Murkowski and her mentors — the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R), and Lisa’s father, former senator and governor, Frank Murkowski (R).

…In late September AST took in $800,000 from nine Alaska Native Corporations — unique, privileged, and politically connected for-profit entities created in the 1970s by legislation written by Stevens.

While the companies are technically owned by the natives, the taxpayer-funded spoils from these contracts accrue to the well-connected nonnative lobbyists, subcontractors, and executives in the “Alaska mafia” made up of aides, friends and donors of Stevens, the Murkowskis, and Rep. Don Young (R). Meanwhile the 130,000 Alaska Natives, who are shareholders in the ANCs, have received $720 million over the last nine years, which comes to $615 per native annually.

In effect, the natives are unwitting frontmen for this racket. Critics on Capitol Hill say this is worse than Jack Abramoff’s exploitation of Indian tribes, and, in a dark joke, dub the ANCs with the politically incorrect name “rent-an-Eskimo.”

…These multimillion-dollar (in some cases billion-dollar) corporations are exempt from competition requirements that cover most federal contracts because they are automatically treated as small businesses from socially and economically disadvantaged populations — although their success in pulling in federal contracts would suggest otherwise.

…These overpriced no-bid contracts aren’t welfare for poor natives as much as they are patronage for politically connected lobbyists and executives, most of whom are not natives.

…The ANCs highlight the truly corrupt aspect of pork-barrel spending, especially in Alaska. “Bringing home the bacon” is not simply about transferring wealth north from the Lower 48 — it’s often about using taxpayer money to line the pockets of the politically connected, who return the favor in the form of campaign contributions. Much of the pork doesn’t make it all the way to Alaska — it stays right here on K Street.

This is just one example of how big government creates a breeding ground for corruption. The circle of graft is Washington’s version of recycling. Money gets taken from taxpayers and then winds up getting passed back and forth among special interests, lobbyists, and politicians. This video provides more of the sordid details.

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