Money in Politics: Politicians For Hire

Part of our series of articles exploring the influence of corporate money over our political system.

What do protesting teachers in Wisconsin, families facing foreclosure, and community leaders fighting state budget cuts have in common?

Well, as the chant now heard ‘round the country goes: “We Are One.” And we are watching to see which lawmakers and policymakers are siding with us – and which are siding with the big banks and other corporations.

It’s not hard to tell where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker comes down. Earlier this week, when Walker raced to pick up the phone for industrialist and conservative moneyman “David Koch” – really a blog editor – he made his position pretty clear. Walker spent twenty minutes chatting with the billionaire, although he wasn’t taking calls from members of the state senate’s Democratic caucus, and he certainly wasn’t listening to the thousands of protesters filling the halls of the capitol to protect workers’ right to bargain. How did the Governor justify such incredible access to an out-of-state donor? By referring to Koch, in an interview with Fox, as “one of our employers here in the state of Wisconsin.”

Combine the move to crush unions with hair-trigger responsiveness to billionaire “employers,” and, as many have argued from the start, it’s pretty clear that this conflict isn’t about the technicalities of balancing the state budget. It has a lot more to with power, justice, and equity, including determining who gets to reap the benefits of our economy and who’s expected to sacrifice.

Despite media coverage focusing on unions and budgets, what people all around the country realize, as evidenced by the “Solidarity with Wisconsin” rallies that took place in all fifty states this past weekend, is that this is not simply a fight between state governments and employees. It is a fight between working American people and the corporate giants who are trying to hijack the country with the help of the politicians they help put into office.

Which takes us to an equally troubling report from earlier this month: Matt Taibbi’s detailing of the failure of federal prosecutors and regulators to take action against Wall Street bankers – seemingly because said prosecutors and regulators hope to someday work for Wall Street banks. (“Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?,” Rolling Stone, February 16, 2011).

So, it’s not just campaign cash that’s a problem. The revolving door is also a problem, providing a powerful incentive against holding banks accountable for crashing our economy.

Meanwhile, millions continue to face foreclosure, and the big banks are stealing people’s homes from under them and improperly denying mortgage relief to qualified applicants, all to boost their bottom line. The Attorneys General from the fifty states are investigating the banks for abuses in the foreclosure process, while at least one federal agency (the Office of the Comptroller of Currency) apparently is pushing the AGs to reach a “modest settlement” with the banks.

Just as workers in Wisconsin have set a bottom line with their state lawmakers – making it clear that elected officials need to put people over corporations – homeowners are setting a bottom line when it comes to fixing the housing market mess.

Earlier this year, the Alliance for a Justice Society and the PICO National Network carried this message to senior Treasury Department officials, urging them to hold banks accountable for the mess the banks created. (The feds can do this by, among other things, requiring mandatory loan modifications – not just when banks feel like it, charging homeowners the real value of their homes, and offering financial restitution to homeowners who lost their houses through bank fraud. And, of course, the feds should prosecute bankers who committed crimes while sinking our economy and pushing people out of their homes.)

There’s still time for Treasury to demonstrate that their loyalty to the public is more powerful than the suck of the corporate revolving door. But they’d better act fast. Events in Wisconsin have inspired many people around the country – look at the “We Are One” rallies in all fifty states. Those people will want to know, with regard to Treasury officials as much as with Scott Walker: When it comes to corporations or people, which side are you on?

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