Photo by moo_sa

Photo by moo_sa

Government regulatory agencies and congressional oversight committees are captured by the industries they’re supposed to regulate.  Massive and supposedly unforeseen disaster occurs as a result.  Public is outraged.  Congress and President seize the moment to demand sweeping reform.  And then… well, not so much.  The reforms that eventually get passed never seem to go as far as they should, and the industries responsible emerge largely unscathed.

We’re seeing it play out with the financial crisis, where the compromise Audit The Fed amendment passed the Senate unanimously (which is pretty amazing although not nearly enough by itself), but the more aggressive and effective Paul-Grayson version went down in flames (with five of its cosponsors voting against it), the Too Big To Fail amendment went down in flames, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency was watered down, and it looks like derivatives reform and the return of Glass-Steagall are following suit.

We’re still in the committee investigation stage with the BP catastrophe, but some senators are already displaying a shocking eagerness to make excuses for offshore oil drilling, even Mary Landrieu, who is getting a good close look at what just one oil rig failure can do.  Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s “moratorium” on additional offshore drilling turns out to be a sham.

We’ve seen the first part of this same pattern play out with the Massey Upper Big Branch disaster, and we’ve seen elements of it in healthcare reform, food and drug-related deaths, and FISA telecom immunity: Corporate interests are protected even when they’re at odds with both good governance and public opinion.  And why?

Because the corporations have all the money and connections, and we don’t.  They can and do spend millions, billions of dollars on lobbying, ads, fundraisers, and campaign contributions to keep congressmembers dependent on them for re-election, to exploit their personal relationships with their ex-peers, ex-staffers, and spouses who work on the other side of the revolving door, and to offer them juicy paychecks of their own when they inevitably pass through it themselves.  The interests of we ordinary shallow-pocketed constituents look a little trivial when compared to all the enticements and influence that corporate cash can buy.

Until this incestuous, corrupt, scale-thumbing cesspool is cleaned up, we will have to content ourselves with partial victories like the flawed stimulus and healthcare reform bills and the Sanders Audit The Fed compromise.  There is some hope on the horizon, though: California has a ballot initiative to publicly fund secretary of state elections, tiptoeing in the footsteps of AZ, CT, ME, NC, NJ, NM, and VT, which all make it possible to run for state and local office without being beholden to corporate and wealthy donors.  Public Campaign, Dick Durbin, Arlen Specter(!), John Larson, and Walter Jones(!!) are working on pushing it to the federal level, and although we’re probably years away from having enough political pressure to pass it, you’d be surprised at just who some of its supporters are:

America’s rich are uniting, hoping to cast off the chains of nagging phone calls from politicians soliciting contributions. A powerful group of 25 major donors has signed a pledge to withhold cash from any politician who doesn’t sign on to the Larson-Jones FAIR Elections Now Act, which would usher in real public campaign financing. Public financing would result in diminished influence for special interests and, in fact, the donors themselves. Steve Kirsch, who kicked in $10 million to try to elect Al Gore in 2000, told HuffPost Hill he’s willing to accept the reduced access – since that access rarely translates into results. “It is a trade off, because there are a lot of good things you can talk to them about, but most of the time they don’t do anything about it anyway. Given the choice, I’d rather have campaign finance reform than access,” he said. The 25 donors plan to lobby other rich folks to sign on, with a plan of passing the FAIR Act, which has some 140 cosponsors, this year. The campaign’s being run by Change Congress, co-founded by Lawrence Lessig and Joe Trippi, along with Common Cause and the Public Campaign Action Fund.

I’m a little amused by big donors bemoaning their lack of influence, but I’ll take all the strange bedfellows I can get at this point.  Like I said, this probably isn’t enough, but once we start seeing a whole bunch of public-finance beneficiaries percolate up to the big show, I think we’ll start seeing a lot more congressional interest in the idea.

And after we get public campaign financing, then all we have to worry about are massive corporate ad buys and the incestuousness of the revolving door and spousal conflicts of interest.  Easy peasy!