Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"The Revolving Door Spins from Sea to Shining Sea"

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

To those who would argue that the notion of a perpetual motion machine is impossible, we give you the revolving door – that ever-spinning entrance and exit between public service in government and the hugely profitable private sector. It never stops.

Yes, we’ve talked about the revolving door until we’re red or blue in the face (the door is bipartisan and spins across party lines) but this mantra bears its own perpetual repetition, a powerful reason for our distrust of the people who make and enforce our laws and regulations.

Jesse Eisinger, writing at The New York Times, reports that on January 25th, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid announced the appointment of Cathy Koch as his chief advisor on tax and economic policy. According to the Times, “The news release lists Ms. Koch’s admirable and formidable experience in the public sector. ‘Prior to joining Senator Reid’s office,’ the release says, ‘Koch served as tax chief at the Senate Finance Committee.’”

But, Eisinger notes, the press statement fails to mention Ms. Koch’s actual last job – as a registered lobbyist for GE. “Yes, General Electric,” he writes, “the company that paid almost no taxes in 2010. Just as the tax reform debate is heating up, Mr. Reid has put in place a person who is extraordinarily positioned to torpedo any tax reform that might draw a dollar out of GE -- and, by extension, any big corporation.”

One other example cited in the Times article: Julie Williams, chief counsel for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency – “and a major friend of the banks for years” – has been forced out of the OCC by its new boss and is joining Promontory Financial Group, “a classic Washington creature that is a private sector mirror image of a regulatory body.”

Promontory plays both sides of the field, helping financial companies hack their way through the bogs of regulation while simultaneously “helping” the OCC review said regulations – like the just abandoned Independent Foreclosure Review that essentially let the banks hire outside “experts” to decide who had been victimized by the banks’ abuse of mortgages. Result: not a dime to affected homeowners but $1.5 billion in consulting fees to Promontory and other companies like it.

And get this: as Julie Williams exits OCC for Promontory, she will be succeeded as chief counsel by Amy Friend, former chief counsel of the Senate Banking Committee but currently a managing director at –wait for it – Promontory!

It’s a wonder all of Washington doesn’t lie prostrate in the streets, overcome by vertigo from all the spinning back and forth. But while we’re at it, remember that this whirling frenzy isn’t limited to the federal government. There are revolving doors installed at the exits and entrances of every state capitol in the country. The temptation for officeholders to seek greener pastures in lobbying can be even greater in statehouses where salaries are small and legislative sessions infrequent.

A quick search of newspapers around the country reveals how pernicious the problem is. On February 22, the Los Angeles Times reported “the abrupt resignation” of State Senator Michael J. Rubio to take a government affairs job with Chevron: “As chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, Rubio was leading the charge to make California’s environmental laws more business-friendly and has introduced bills during his two years in office that affect the oil industry in his Central Valley district.”

A recent editorial in the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer points out that since the last session of the legislature there, Republican Harold Brubaker, former speaker of the North Carolina House; and Republican Richard Stevens, a ten-year veteran of the state senate, have become registered lobbyists: “Both men became experts in state spending by heading budget committees in their respective chambers… Top legislators-turned-hired-guns advising lawmakers sounds like an opening for well-funded interests to buy influence.”

Florida, that inflamed big toe of American politics, is one of the worst offenders, even as the state debates a sweeping ethics reform bill that keeps in place a current law that prevents departing members from lobbying the legislature for a two-year “cooling off” period – but postpones for two years a similar ban on doing business with the governor and state agencies. Over the last two decades, the state has increasingly contracted government work – currently valued at $50 billion -- to outside vendors.

Earlier this month, Mary Ellen Klas of The Miami Herald wrote, “The infusion of state cash into private and non-profit industries has spawned a cottage industry of lobbyists who help vendors manage the labyrinth of rules and build relationships with executive agency officers and staff so they can steer contracts to their clients.
“There are now more people registered to lobby the governor, the Cabinet and their agencies -- 4,925 -- than there are registered to lobby the 160-member Legislature -- 3,235.” Dozens of them are former legislators and staff members “as well as former utility regulators, agency secretaries, division heads and other employees.”

Former Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon retired last November and has set up a lobbying shop just a block from the state capitol in Tallahassee. And former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, now a lobbyist, “used his influence to get lawmakers to insert millions into the budget at the final stage of the budget process to pay for a state law enforcement radio system the agencies didn’t ask for, a juvenile justice contract that agency didn’t seek and the extension of a contract to expand broadband service in rural areas.”

You get the picture. In fifteen states, according to the progressive Center for Public Integrity, “there aren’t any laws preventing legislators from resigning one day and registering as lobbyists the next…In the most egregious cases, legislators or regulators have written laws or set policy that helps a business or industry with whom they have been negotiating for a job once they leave office.” What’s more, in many of the 35 states that do have restrictions, “the rules are riddled with loopholes, narrowly written or loosely enforced.”

Which is why Glenn Harlan Reynolds, law professor, libertarian and head honcho of the political blog Instapundit, may be on to something. In a column for USA Today last month, he suggested, “…Let's involve the most effective behavior-control machinery in America: The Internal Revenue Code.

“In short, I propose putting 50% surtax -- or maybe it should be 75%, I'm open to discussion -- on the post-government earnings of government officials. So if you work at a cabinet level job and make $196,700 a year, and you leave for a job that pays a million a year, you'll pay 50% of the difference -- just over $400,000 -- to the Treasury right off the top. So as not to be greedy, we'll limit it to your first five years of post-government earnings; after that, you'll just pay whatever standard income tax applies.”

The conservative Boston Herald endorsed the idea, comparing an ex-legislator or official’s connections and knowledge to intangible capitol and Reynolds’ scheme to a capital gains tax.

Imagine – conservatives and libertarians making a favorable comparison to the capital gains tax! This and that Russian meteor may be signs of the apocalypse. Just gives you an idea of how deeply awful and anti-democratic the revolving door is, no matter which side you’re on. That’s why it has to be slowed down if not completely stopped – and why we’ll keep talking about it.

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship, senior writer at the think tank Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at

Saturday, February 16, 2013

"POGO Sticks It to the SEC"

by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

In our last episode of that ongoing Washington soap opera, “As the Door Revolves,” we introduced you to former Federal prosecutor Mary Jo White, pursuer of drug lords and terrorists, who left government to become a hot shot Wall Street lawyer defending such corporate giants as JPMorgan Chase, UBS, General Electric and Microsoft. Oh yes — and former Goldman Sachs board member Rajat Gupta, currently appealing his insider trading conviction.

The New York Times reports that White and her husband, who’s also a corporate litigator, have a net worth of at least $16 million and investments that might be valued as high as $35 million. Now, courtesy of President Obama, Mary Jo White’s been named to head the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission — the very agency that regulates her clients and everyone else doing business in the stock market.

But as they say on late night TV, wait — there’s more! Join us for our latest episode of “As the Door Revolves” in which the door spins even faster between the SEC and big business. According to a major new report from the nonpartisan watchdog POGO – the Project on Government Oversight — hundreds of the agency’s former employees have done or are doing business with the SEC on behalf of the corporations the agency is supposed to regulate.

Imagine — hundreds with an intimate knowledge of how the place works advocating for their clients with friends at the SEC — colleagues who themselves may be looking for a big payoff when they, too, leave government. From 2001 through 2010, 419 SEC alumni filed nearly 2,000 disclosure forms saying they would be representing companies or individuals coming before the commission. And that’s only the “tip of the iceberg,” POGO says, “Because former SEC employees are required to file them only during the first two years after they leave the agency.” In other words, after that first couple of years there are no official records kept so we can’t know how vast the problem is or even how far back it goes.
However, POGO writes, “Former employees of the Securities and Exchange Commission routinely help corporations try to influence S.E.C. rule-making, counter the agency’s investigations of suspected wrongdoing, soften the blow of S.E.C. enforcement actions, block shareholder proposals and win exemptions from federal law.”

No wonder the SEC has granted special waivers to business on some 350 occasions that, according to the report, “softened the blow of enforcement actions.” What’s more, a year ago, The New York Times reported that “Close to half of the waivers went to repeat offenders — Wall Street firms that had settled previous fraud charges by agreeing never again to violate the very laws that the SEC was now saying that they had broken.” The plot thickens, or in this case, sickens.

POGO also notes that in three instances — from 2008-2012 — when there were cases against UBS, the Swiss investment bank retained ex-SEC attorneys to argue on its behalf and was, in the words of the Times, “granted relief.” And when Obama’s first SEC chair, Mary Schapiro, pushed for reform of the $2.6 trillion money markets business, it was lobbied against by at least half a dozen former SEC staffers, and opposed by the two Republicans on the commission and one Democrat, Luis Aguilar, who used to be an executive vice president with the money management firm Invesco. The POGO report says that shortly after “Invesco sent a team to meet with Aguilar at the SEC and tell him why tightening rules for money market funds was a bad idea,” he came out against Schapiro’s plan, Coincidence? Aguilar told POGO there’s no connection. Sure.

When George W. Bush was president and named Chris Cox to run the SEC, we screamed like bloody murder, because Cox had been a partner at a huge global law firm whose client list included Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs. Now Obama’s pushing his choices through that same revolving door. It’s called “regulatory capture” — the takeover of government agencies by the very corporations they’re supposed to keep an eye on, to protect everyone’s investments and pensions against abuses of private power.

What’s next? Stay tuned. In the next few weeks, Mary Jo White will sit for her confirmation hearing and doubtless will be asked all about this by a committee stacked with politicians whose big donors include… the financial industry. You can read the complete POGO report here. Forward it to your own Member of Congress, then open your window and scream.


Bill Moyers is managingeditor and Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at the think tank Demos, is senior writer ofthe weekly public affairs program, Moyers& Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or commentat

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Obama State of the Union: Rallying Cry for Economically Disenfranchised

Mr. Obama is getting high marks on Tuesday's State of the Union as well he should, but the overarching principle, and recurring theme throughout the speech is that of a presidency that has pledged to address the gaping problem of economic disenfranchisement.

A pivotal moment came when the president introduced the 102 year old Miami woman who waited for six hours to get into a voting booth. It was pivotal because, increasingly, it is the poor and people of color who find voting harder and harder at a time when many states have tried to neutralize the Voting Rights Act. His proposal for voting reform is an important one, but the disenfranchisement highlighted in the State of the Union has as much to do with the workplace as the polling place..

This was the thread that connected Obama's proposal to expand access to pre-school offering opportunities to all youngsters, and an important acknowledgment that scholastic and professional underachievement are generational and institutionalized.

The president's proposal to increase the minimum wage to $9 an hour was framed by his acknowledgment that workers who 40 hour work weeks at the current minimum wage still live at or below the federal poverty line. This is unacceptable.

Implicit in these concepts is the fact that the kinds of cuts called for by the sequester are those that will only work to ensure that the ranks of the economically displaced grow. "We can't just cut our way to prosperity," Mr. Obama said. Surely he knows that that's not the intention of the Republicans to cut our way to prosperity, but instead to cut social programs to ensure that those who are already prosperous aren't diminished one bit by any effort to contain the deficit.

Marco Rubio, in his response to the State of the Union, was quick to confuse the issue, and accuse the president of wanting to raise taxes. What Rubio and other Republicans fail to mention is that this administration wants to raise taxes on those who can afford to pay more. This is an effort at economic justice not retribution.

Mr. Obama is quite right again when he says that "Deficit reduction is not an economic plan." It was never intended to be an economic plan as he knows, but instead a plan to roll back all the advances made under the New Deal.

The Fix it First is a proposal that will put long term unemployed back to work in public works restoring both their dignity, and the nation's infrastructure. It's a win-win.

And, when it came to talking about housing, the president put forth a plan to help working folks refinance their mortgage at a rate that's affordable to them, so they're not faced with a crisis in residency. Yet another call to work to end economic disenfranchisement.

By committing to comprehensive immigration reform, this president is addressing the most egregious instance of economic displacement we now confront as a nation that of eleven million undocumented workers who are being exploited, working for far less than the minimum wage, separated from their families during ICE raids, rounded up and deported. By acknowledging the need to create a legitimate path for citizenship, this administration is confronting head on the need to end economic disenfranchisement of millions of undocumented immigrants.

While the president's speech was ambitious and not short on specifics, it was resoundingly consistent in this one theme alone, that of owning up to the working poor and indigent in America, and taking a seismic step in advancing towards economic justice.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"The Hubris of the Drones"

by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Last week, The New York Times published a chilling account of how indiscriminate killing in war remains bad policy even today. This time, it’s done not by young GIs in the field but by anonymous puppeteers guiding drones that hover and attack by remote control against targets thousands of miles away, often killing the innocent and driving their enraged and grieving families and friends straight into the arms of the very terrorists we’re trying to eradicate.

The Times told of a Muslim cleric in Yemen named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, standing in a village mosque denouncing al Qaeda. It was a brave thing to do — a respected tribal figure, arguing against terrorism. But two days later, when he and a police officer cousin agreed to meet with three al Qaeda members to continue the argument, all five men — friend and foe — were incinerated by an American drone attack. The killings infuriated the village and prompted rumors of an upwelling of support in the town for al Qaeda, because, the Times reported, “such a move is seen as the only way to retaliate against the United States.”

Our blind faith in technology combined with a false sense of infallible righteousness continues unabated. Reuters correspondent David Rohde recently wrote:

“The Obama administration’s covert drone program is on the wrong side of history. With each strike, Washington presents itself as an opponent of the rule of law, not a supporter. Not surprisingly, a foreign power killing people with no public discussion, or review of who died and why, promotes anger among Pakistanis, Yemenis and many others.”

Rohde has firsthand knowledge of what a drone strike can do. He was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008 and held for seven months. During his captivity, a drone struck nearby. “It was so close that shrapnel and mud showered down into the courtyard,” he told the BBC last year. “Just the force and size of the explosion amazed me. It comes with no warning and tremendous force… There’s sense that your sovereignty is being violated… It’s a serious military action. It is not this light precise pinprick that many Americans believe.”

A special report from the Council on Foreign Relations last month, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies,” quotes “a former senior military official” saying, “Drone strikes are just a signal of arrogance that will boomerang against America.” The report notes that, “The current trajectory of U.S. drone strike policies is unsustainable… without any meaningful checks — imposed by domestic or international political pressure — or sustained oversight from other branches of government, U.S. drone strikes create a moral hazard because of the negligible risks from such strikes and the unprecedented disconnect between American officials and personnel and the actual effects on the ground.”

Negligible? Such hubris brought us to grief in Vietnam and Iraq and may do so again with President Obama’s cold-blooded use of drones and his indifference to so-called “collateral damage,” grossly referred to by some in the military as “bug splat,” and otherwise known as innocent bystanders.

Yet the ease with which drones are employed and the lower risk to our own forces makes the unmanned aircraft increasingly appealing to the military and the CIA. We’re using drones more and more; some 350 strikes since President Obama took office, seven times the number that were authorized by George W. Bush. And there’s a whole new generation of the weapons on the way — deadlier and with greater endurance.

According to the CFR report, “Of the estimated three thousand people killed by drones… the vast majority were neither al-Qaeda nor Taliban leaders. Instead, most were low-level, anonymous suspected militants who were predominantly engaged in insurgent or terrorist operations against their governments, rather than in active international terrorist plots.”

By the standards of slaughter in Vietnam, the deaths caused by drones are hardly a bleep on the consciousness of official Washington. But we have to wonder if each innocent killed — a young boy gathering wood at dawn, unsuspecting of his imminent annihilation; a student who picked up the wrong hitchhikers; that tribal elder arguing against fanatics — doesn’t give rise to second thoughts by those judges who prematurely handed our president the Nobel Prize for Peace. Better they had kept it on the shelf in hopeful waiting, untarnished.


Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at the think tank Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at

Monday, February 11, 2013


While all eyes will be focused on President Obama's first State of the Union address on Tuesday, the fact that it comes on the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the president's spiritual mentor, cannot be lost on anyone nor can this remarkable
bit of Lincoln wisdom:

"Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"

Saturday, February 02, 2013


Novelist, poet, and playwright, James Joyce, was born 131 years ago today in Dublin. His parents would
have preferred Bethlehem, but they couldn't find a parking space.

For more than a decade, I've worked on bringing to the big screen the great story of his relationship with his American publisher, Sylvia Beach, who was to be the first to stand up to censors, and publish the complete version of "Ulysses," a book widely regarded as the greatest novel in the English language.

I know, it's a tough item to get a major studio to move on--a New Jersey woman, daughter of Presbyterian minister, who moves to Paris to pursue her dream of opening up a bookstore, fights off the naysayers, goes running around in the snow, can't find a printer, has typists quit rather than type the manuscript, and ends up being the original publisher of a book banned in the U.S. for eleven years under the Tariff Act until December, 1933, Judge Woolsey verdict.

If a movie can be made about Abraham Lincoln's epic struggle to pass the 13th Amendment, why not one about the heroic efforts of this American expatriate and the Chaplinesque genius whose work was shunned, and confiscated by the post office in New York?

And, more important than the court scenes is the connection between this unlikely pairing of personalities: Beach and Joyce.

Who cares about James Joyce? Well, somebody in China does, apparently. As The Independent reported last week, the first print run of the Chinese translation of "Finnegan's Wake" sold out in China. That's right, sold out. The Chinese know a good story when they hear one, and they recognize a good character when they see one. James Joyce is such a character.

The impetus for the character of Joyce in the script came, of course, from much research, and the reading of
many biographies including "Dear Miss Weaver," an anthology of correspondence between Mr. Joyce and his mentor, and lifelong friend, Harriet Weaver, a book that was recommended by Stephen James Joyce, the author's grandson.

Even more than the formal research, the inspiration for the character came from what Poe might have called the imp of the perverse, and the awareness that art is the insistence on blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction.

Virginia Woolf has found her way to the big screen, (and don't get me started on how it could happen that a movie could be made about Virginia Woolf and not James Joyce), it remains my obstinate hope that Mr. Joyce's story will yet be told, and in my words, too, for it takes not only art, but courage to bring a story like this to the big screen. The dream lives on.

Friday, February 01, 2013

"Barack Obama, Drone Ranger"

by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

If you’ve seen the movie Zero Dark Thirty, you know why it has triggered a new debate over our government’s use of torture after 9/11.

The movie’s up for an Oscar as best motion picture. We’ll know later this month if it wins. Some people leave the theater claiming the film endorses and even glorifies the use of torture to obtain information that finally led to finding and killing Osama bin Laden. Not true, say the filmmakers, but others argue the world is better off without bin Laden in it, no matter how we had to get him. What’s more, they say, there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack on American soil since 9/1 — if we have to use an otherwise immoral practice to defend ourselves against such atrocities, we’re okay with it. Or so the argument goes.

The story of bin Laden’s death is just one aspect of the international manhunt the United States has pursued, a worldwide dragnet of detention and death that has raised troubling questions and fervent debate over the fight against terrorism. What about the undermining of civil liberties here at home? The rights of suspects? The secret surveillance of American citizens? The swollen executive powers first claimed by George W. Bush and now by Barack Obama?

Soon after he succeeded Bush, President Obama announced he would not permit torture and would close down the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. He also said:

“The orders that I sign today should send an unmistakable signal that our actions in defense of liberty will be just as our cause. And that we the people will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security. Once again, America’s moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership”

Four years later, Guantanamo remains open. In fact, just a few days ago, the State Department announced it was eliminating the office assigned to close the prison and move its detainees.

Because of logjams in the process of military justice, alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others have yet to come to trial. And there’s continuing controversy about the lack of oversight and transparency surrounding the detention and interrogation of suspects both here and abroad.Meanwhile, President Obama has stepped up the use of unmanned drones against suspected terrorists abroad, not only in Afghanistan but in countries where we’re not at war, including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. As the Brookings Institution’s Peter Singer wrote in The New York Times a year ago, “… A new technology is short-circuiting the decision-making process for what used to be the most important choice a democracy could make. Something that would have previously been viewed as a war is simply not being treated like a war.”

Just last week, as reports came of more deaths by drone — including three attacks in Yemen, with 13 dead — the United Nations announced an investigation into the legality of drones and their deadly toll on the innocent. According to UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson:

“The central objective of the investigation… is to look at the evidence that drone strikes and other forms of remote targeted killing have caused disproportionate civilian casualties in some instances… It’s both right as a matter of principle, and inevitable as a matter of political reality, that the international community should now be focusing attention on the standards applicable to this technological development.”

Since Barack Obama took office, the aerial assaults also have killed three U.S. citizens, raising additional arguments as to whether the president has the right to order the death of Americans suspected of terrorism without due process of law. One of those controversial drone attacks involved the killing of Anwar al-Awalki, an American citizen and radical Muslim cleric who had moved to Yemen with his family. He was said to be the brains behind repeated attempts to attack the U.S., including the Christmas day underwear bomber plot in 2009 that would have blown up a passenger jet over Detroit. Also dead was American citizen Samir Khan, editor of “Inspire,” al Qaeda ‘s online propaganda magazine, and two weeks later, in a separate drone attack, al-Awalki’s 16-year-old son, born in Denver.

A key player in our government’s current drone program is John Brennan, who during the Bush presidency was a senior official at the Central Intelligence Agency and head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Reportedly, Barack Obama considered offering him the top job at the CIA in 2008, but public opposition — in reaction to the charges that the Bush White House had approved torture — caused Brennan to withdraw his name from consideration. Nonetheless, Obama kept him on as an adviser, and now, despite Brennan’s past notoriety, Obama officially has chosen him to head the CIA. This time, there’s been little criticism of the decision.

We hope Brennan’s upcoming confirmation hearings on February 7 will offer Congressional critics the chance to press him on drone attacks and whether the Obama administration in its fight against terror is functioning within the rule of law — or abusing presidential power when there has been no formal declaration of war.


Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at the think tank Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at

The Razor

The razor at
the edge of
reminds us
that we
need to

(c) Jayne Lyn Stahl