Posts Tagged ‘Tom Ferguson’

Newt Gingrich, gridlock and “pay to play”

January 28, 2012

Newt Gingrich created the “pay to play” system by which House of Representatives committee assignments and leadership positions hinge on their ability to raise money for the party.  And he also is as responsible as anyone for the partisan divisions that keep the legislative process in gridlock.

Political scientist Tom Ferguson tells the story.

In the mid-1980s, a group of insurgent Republicans broke with the long established norms governing how the U.S. House of Representatives transacted business.  Led by Newt Gingrich, it derided older Republican House leaders as timid, unimaginative, and too inclined to compromise with Democrats.  Self-styled “revolutionaries” launched vigorous public attacks on Democrats as they trumpeted their own agenda of deregulation, budget cuts, lower taxes, and a baker’s dozen of social issues, from abortion to opposition to all forms of gun control.

Result?  The House boiled over.  Statistical measures of Congressional behavior show that party line votes jumped sharply.

Gingrich and his allies were painfully aware that transforming the GOP’s gains at the presidential level into a true “critical realignment” of the political system as a whole required breaking the Democratic lock on Congress.  So they shattered all records for Congressional fundraising in their drive to get control of the House.  Their success in this and their parallel campaign to rally major parts of the media to their standard are what polarized the system.  The GOP insurgents emphasized fundraising, not just through the usual publicly reported vehicles like the national party committees, but also GOPAC, a political action committee that Gingrich had controlled since 1986, which operated mostly in secret.

In 1992, in the midst of a recession, the Republicans lost the White House. But their dreams of a sweeping political realignment did not die.  In fact, by clearing centrist Republicans out of their perches in the White House, the loss probably helped Gingrich and his allies.

Completely undaunted, Gingrich, Republican National Chair Haley Barbour, and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Phil Gramm orchestrated a vast national campaign to recapture Congress for the Republicans in the 1994 elections.  With the economy stuck in a “jobless recovery” and Democratic fundraising sputtering, the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress.

The tidal wave of political money they conjured allowed Gingrich, Gramm, Barbour and Co., to brush aside older, less combative center-right Republican leaders and persist in their efforts to roll back the New Deal and remake American society in the image of free market fundamentalism.  Once in power, the Republicans institutionalized sweeping rules changes in the House and the Republican caucus that vastly increased the leadership’s influence over House legislation.  They also implemented a formal “pay to play” system that had both inside and outside components.

On the outside, DeLay and other GOP leaders, including Grover Norquist, who headed Americans for Tax Reform, mounted a vast campaign (the so-called “K Street Project”) to defund the Democrats directly by pressuring businesses to cut off donations and avoid retaining Democrats as lobbyists. Inside the House, Gingrich made fundraising for the party a requirement for choice committee assignments. Senate Republicans, led by Phil Gramm and other apostles of deregulation, emulated the House.

And so, alas, did the Democrats.

Click on Standstill Nation as the New Abnormal for Tom Ferguson’s full article for the Roosevelt Institute.

Click on Our Polarized and Money-Driven Congress: Created Over 25 Years by Republicans (And Quickly Imitated by Democrats) for more on Gingrich’s legacy on the Naked Capitalism web log.

Click on Newt Gingrich and Our Dysfunctional Congress for an article on Gingrich’s legacy by Lou Dubose of The Washington Spectator.

Click on Newt Gingrich Is a Saul Alinsky Republican for an analysis of Newt Gingrich’s political tactics from the Washington Examiner.

Click on Language: a Key Mechanism of Control for Newt Gingrich’s 1996 GOPAC Memo on political rhetoric.

Tom Ferguson on President Obama’s speech

January 25, 2012

A crisis in democratic governance

November 28, 2011

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Congress for sale: Posted prices

October 13, 2011

Political scientist Thomas Ferguson says that committee assignments and chairmanships in the House of Representatives are not only for sale, they have posted prices, just like in Target or Wal-Mart or Best Buy.

Under the new rules for the 2008 election cycle, the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] asked rank and file members to contribute $125,000 in dues and to raise an additional $75,000 for the party.  Subcommittee chairpersons must contribute $150,000 in dues and raise an additional $100,000. Members who sit on the most powerful committees …. must contribute $200,000 and raise an additional $250,000.  Subcommittee chairs on power committees and committee chairs of non-power committees must contribute $250,000 and raise $250,000.  The five chairs of the power committees must contribute $500,000 and raise an additional $1 million. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn, and Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emmanuel must contribute $800,000 and raise $2.5 million.  The four Democrats who serve as part of the extended leadership must contribute $450,000 and raise $500,000, and the nine Chief Deputy Whips must contribute $300,000 and raise $500,000. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must contribute a staggering $800,000 and raise an additional $25 million.

           ==Marian Currinder, Money in the House (2008)

The sequel, according to political scientist Eleanor Powell of Yale, was that half the committee chairs failed to meet their fund-raising goals.  While committee chairmanships and assignments were not solely based on fund-raising benchmarks, those who failed were in jeopardy of losing their seats to more junior House members with more fund-raising prowess.

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Business, not public, driving nation rightward

September 15, 2011

 The political realignment of the Reagan years was a realignment of business interests and not of voter sentiment.  So argued Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, in their 1986 book, Right Turn: the Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics, a book as enlightening now as it was when it was published 25 years ago, because the situation they describe has not changed.

Public opinion polls in the 1980s showed that a majority of voters favored Social Security and Medicare, gave full employment a higher priority than balanced budgets or lower taxes, believed workers have a right to join labor unions, and had no enthusiasm for getting bogged down in foreign wars—as they still do.

How, then, did Ferguson and Rogers explain Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories in 1980 and 1984?  They said this was a reflection of the unpopularity of the Democrats than allegiance to the Republicans.  Jimmy Carter was rejected because he was unable to deal with stagflation and rising oil prices, and because he supported the tight-money program of Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, which brought inflation under control by measure Volcker knew would casue a recession.  Walter Mondale was rejected because his only substantive campaign promise was to raise taxes.

If voter sentiment did not change, what caused the Reagan revolution?  Ferguson and Rogers said business interests realigned as a result of rising oil prices and increased international economic competition in the 1970s.

One consequence was a conflict of interest between the oil industry and manufacturing industry, leading to a majority of oil men shifting their allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican party.  Another was a slowing of U.S. economic growth, resulting in a hardening of corporate attitudes toward taxes, labor unions, environmental and health regulation.  In an era when U.S. economic supremacy was unquestioned, these costs could be passed on to consumers; in an era of intensified global competition, this was not possible.  The result of the Reagan revolution and the pro-corporate movement that followed was that the corporate elite received almost all the benefits of what economic growth there was.

Ferguson and Rogers dismiss the idea that the Reagan administration reflected a change in economic philosophy.  If you examine the Reagan policies in detail, they wrote, they consist of payoffs to constituencies, not implementation of a philosophy.  The Star Wars defense plan was a payoff to the aerospace and computer-electionics industries.

The Democrats were unable to challenge this because their party was (as it still is) beholden to Wall Street.  Bankers and financiers fear inflation above all else, because it reduces the value of their assets, and so favor balanced budgets and spending restraint.  This is why Carter supported Volcker and Mondale advocated a tax increase to balance the federal budget, and why Clinton and Obama gave priority to fiscal probity, and why Democrats have a better overall record than Republicans as budget balancers.

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The investment theory of politics

August 29, 2011

I respect honest politicians who do what is right but unpopular.  I understand pragmatic politicians who do what is wrong but popular.   I can understand why politicians refuse to enact laws that are desirable but unpopular.  But what we have now are politicians who are refusing to do things that are obviously necessary and highly popular, such as break up and rein in the “too big to fail” banks.   Why would they do that?

golden.ruleSome light is thrown on this by a book I read recently, Golden Rule: the Investment Theory of Political Parties and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems, by a political scientist named Thomas Ferguson.  I became interested in Ferguson’s ideas when I saw him on the on-line Real News Network.

Golden Rule was published in 1995, and incorporates articles published before then, but it is highly relevant.   Ferguson’s analyses of the 1988, 1992 and 1994 elections, with name changes and minor rewrites, could just as easily have been written about the elections of 2004, 2008 and 2010.

Ferguson’s Golden Rule is “to understand who rules, follow the gold.”  This idea is hardly original with him, he did this on a much more granular level than most people.  He contended American politics is about policies—high tariffs vs. free trade, loose money vs. tight money, industrial policy vs. unregulated free enterprise—that some business interests favor and others oppose.

Businesses invest in candidates and political parties, and expect a return on their investment.  Since they have conflicting interests, the public gets to throw its weight onto one side or the other.   But proposals that are adverse to business as a whole don’t get on the public agenda.  According to Ferguson, no political party has ever supported a measure adverse to a business or corporate interest, unless there was some other business or corporate interest behind it.

Ferguson’s research explains a great deal that is otherwise hard to understand—why Bill Clinton, like Barack Obama, ran on a platform of economic growth and then abruptly changed to George H.W. Bush’s priority of bringing down the federal budget deficit.  It is because he could not afford to antagonize Wall Street financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel once reportedly told his staff:

  • The first third of a campaign is money, money and money.
  • The second third is money, money and press.
  • And the last third is votes, press and money.

By this account, money is six times as important as votes.  That is why there is bi-partisan support for such unpopular policies as the North American Free Trade Agreement, the bank bailouts and “reform” of Social Security.

The influence of corporate wealth is more than just campaign contributions, or even financing right-wing magazines, TV networks, research institutions and advocacy groups.  Wealthy people and organizations have ready access to information that the middle-class voter does not see or even know about.  They understand where their interests lie, and exactly how those interests are affected by governmental action, which is difficult for the average voter to learn. Members of the corporate and financial elite are personally acquainted with members of the political and intellectual elite.  They interact with each other and influence each other, away from the eyes of the public.

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Tom Ferguson on money and politics

August 17, 2011

Tom Ferguson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and a fellow of the Roosevelt Institute, has a lot of good sense and good insight on politics and the economy.  Here he is in an interview with the Real News network in April.

Contrary to what the caption says, he is a professor of political science, not economics, but his real subject is what use to be called political economy—now public policy affects the economy.

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