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Steve Israel’s Retirement and the Corruption of American Politics

George Salamon
January 31, 2016

Less News Than’s Fit to Print

by George Salamon

billionairesREPRESENTATIVE STEVE ISRAEL (D-NY) handed the New York Times a great lede when announcing his retirement from the House on January 5th. The paper of record muffed it.

The eight-term Congressman from Long Island is quoted in the paper’s story on January 5th as saying, “I always knew the system was dysfunctional. Now it is beyond broken.” That statement by Israel, one of his party’s “top strategists” and a “close adviser” to Congresswoman and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, should have teased a bunch of questions from the Times’ reporter, to be asked not only of Israel, but of political scientists, fellow representatives, and historians. Among them: Was our political system always “dysfunctional?” If so, how did it start out that way? If not, when did it veer from being merely dysfunctional to out of control? What forces, events and people contributed most to the system’s devolution? Who tried to prevent it? And if Steve Israel “always” knew (one assumes from the time of his first election in 2000, but perhaps even before), why did he wait until his retirement announcement to inform the public of the nature of a system he served for sixteen years?

Israel does not describe the dysfunctional character of American politics and the Times reporter did not ask him to do so. So let’s look at a description rendered by the late novelist E.L. Doctorow, written in The Nation in the same year Israel entered the House:

As Washington is run today, major issues of public policy are bent and distorted by these multiheaded Brobdingnags (business conglomerates, GS) who bribe Congress with their money and coddle it with their lobbies, so that time and time again socially desirable legislation in the public interest, whether having to do with public health or safety, environmental protection, preservation of our natural resources or any other issue of clear relevance to the entire society, is defeated, sabotaged or transmuted by language into its perverse opposite.

Just how well Doctorow captured the ways of Washington was illustrated by a New York Times story on December 15, 2015. The headline and subheads tell us that “Lobbyists shield a tax loophole worth $1 billion” through “late exceptions in bill,” creating a “reprieve (that) favors casino, restaurant and Wall Street interests.” The lobbyists who engineered preservation of the loophole “won support from the top Senate Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada.” As Doctorow perceived and, it turns out predicted, these lobbyists “even helped draft the crucial language.” The “even” seems naïve.

And so, as the Times observes a tad breathlessly, “In the span of a mere 11 days this month, $1 billion in future federal tax payments vanished.”

SUCH MAGIC ACTS performed for the “multiheaded Brobdingnags” are more the rule than the exception. Business and financial interests like the ones behind the tax windfall in the Times’ story, one lobbyist told the paper, “have someone in just about everyone’s district.”

Steve Israel’s complaint about Congress, by comparison, is depersonalized. No individuals, organizations, or parties are assigned accountability for creating and advancing of a system in the service of power and money and abandoning their Constitutional mandate to “promote the general Welfare.”

For Israel and his mentor Pelosi politics consists of policy and procedure, no longer undergirded by a public philosophy and opposed by another. That is why Israel says his retirement was sparked by the “rapidly shrinking ranks of centrist lawmakers from either party.” Congress still has in its ranks enough skillful fundraisers like Israel, but too few skilled dealmakers in the non-ideological middle to restore functionality across party aisles.

Yet some of us hotheads on the left might ask Israel and Pelosi what Democrats working “on behalf of hard-working families” (Pelosi’s words) achieved for these families while Congress boasted more “centrist lawmakers” prior to the great shrinkage? According to a 2013 Brookings Institute study of data from almost 34,000 households, between 1987 and 2009 “the rich became permanently richer and the poor permanently poorer.” For those hard-working families Pelosi cited, the entire rise in inequality “is life-long.” Nancy Pelosi was elected to Congress in the first year covered by this study (Forbes called the study “groundbreaking”) and Bill Clinton was president for eight. Steve Israel served in the House for nine. Hope for improvement was floated before working-class Americans with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

And what happened? Another study, another letdown: A report by the Federal Reserve revealed that “for the most affluent 10 percent of American families, average incomes rose by 10 percent from 2010 to 2013, for the rest of the population average incomes were flat or falling,” according the Fed’s triennial Survey of Consumer Finances. Not unexpectedly, “the least affluent families had the largest decline, dropping “by 8 percent for the bottom 20 percent of families,” as a story in the New York Times on September 5, 2014 noted.

No administration has stopped or reversed the rise of economic inequality. It has been bemoaned by Democratic politicians and shrugged off by Republicans. It has not propelled members of Congress to retire.

PERHAPS EDITORS at the Times realized that Israel’s retirement announcement provided an eye-catching statement but thin gruel of analysis. Two days after the story, the paper published an op-ed by Israel called “Confessions of a Congressman.” He fingered the demands for fundraising, and Republican opposition to campaign finance reform, as his villains: “The only hope for reform is to replace the majority that is stopping reform at every turn.” Substitute “change” for “reform” and you have the campaign slogan almost every candidate for president has run on since Eisenhower announced that it was “Time for a Change” in 1952. American voters are by now, one wants to hope, as skeptical about that as they are about “New! Improved Flavor!” on the supermarket shelves.

No Times reporter or editor reminded readers that the paper’s own stories, like the one on the tax loopholes, have made it clear that money flowing to politicians acknowledges no party affiliation. Yet Paul Starr, citing several studies in his New Republic essay “A Wasted Crisis? Why the Democrats Did Little to Change Wall Street”, notes that “Wall Street political contributions... have gone to both Democrats and Republicans... the more conservative wing of each party (moderate Democrats and conservative Republicans)” garnering “substantially more contributions than the more liberal factions.”

Steve Israel does not acknowledge what Starr explains about the failure of financial reform, whether of banking or campaigning: “the political power of the (financial) industry, the complexity of the issues, and the complicity of leading Democrats in the policies that helped bring about the crisis.”

As stated by the Center for Responsive Politics in a quote in Starr’s essay, “the financial sector (the dominant sector of our economy) is by far the largest source of campaign contributions to federal candidates and parties.” The financialization of the economy has led, as Starr noted, to the “financialization of politics,” adding rather bleakly “as money finds its way to power.”

Such perceptive remarks have implications beyond the halls of Congress and the corridors of corporations, in the shaping of a social order and ideas and ideals at the heart of governance. Indeed, Starr’s words remind me of what Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Borowski, known for his 1976 short story collection This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, wrote: “The world is ruled neither by justice nor morality... The world is ruled by power and power is obtained by money.”

IS THIS WHERE the American experiment has ended? And was it inevitable because the commercial enterprise, the pursuit of profit, was from the country’s beginning at the heart of the American experience, with its “democracy” a sideshow at best, a fraud at worst?

John Adams described his country as “more Avaricious than any other Nation that ever existed.” Political philosopher Morris Berman extended that perception to modern times in Why America Failed, The Roots of Imperial Decline:

The culmination of a hustling, laissez-faire capitalist culture is that everything gets dumbed down, that all significant questions are ignored, and that every human activity is turned into a commodity, and anything goes if it sells. What we have is domination by corporate media, politics via poll-driven sound bites, a foreign policy based on unilateralism and preemptive strikes, a failing newspaper industry, a poorly informed citizenry, the unemployed winding up destitute, weak (or no) mass transit systems, and a health care system that ranks thirty-seventh in the world.

Yet in his 1968 book Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson Years, Yale’s political scientist James Sundquist could say about the 1964-65 Congress:

In one of the most remarkable outpourings of major legislation in the history of the country, the Congress in 1964 and 1965 had expressed the national purpose in bold and concrete terms — to outlaw discrimination in many of its forms, to improve educational opportunity at every level, to eradicate poverty, to assure health care for old people, to create jobs for the unemployed, to cleanse the rivers and the air and to protect and beautify man’s outdoor environment.

Congress received its “highest public approval registered in modern times” in 1965 polls, Sundquist added. We know where those approval ratings have slithered. Congress flamed out with this last burst of New Deal public philosophy, and what we have now, and what Israel hints at in his announcement, is a stalemate between conservative and liberal forces, with neither side offering the citizenry a meaningful vision of socio-economic health or even a rising future for America’s generations-to-come. The two sides are simply warring over the spoils of wealth and power.

Maybe the social democrat Bernie Sanders will prevail over a lousy tradition in American politics: “The men that American people admire most extravagantly,” H.L. Mencken observed, “are the most daring liars, the men they detest most violently are those who tell them the truth.” Sanders’ successful challenge, at least so far, of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination may initiate a break in this pattern.

George Salamon taught German at several East Coast colleges, wrote a book on German-Jewish novelist Arnold Zweig (Twayne) and co-edited a reader in German history (Oxford). He served as staff reporter on the St. Louis Business Journal and senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He writes for the Gateway Journalism Review, The New Verse News, and Jewish Currents from St. Louis, MO.