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Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower
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Breaking the Lobbyists' Stranglehold on Our Democracy


Jack Abramoff, the infamous Washington super-lobbyist who slipped on his own sleaze, was sentenced last week to four years in prison for corruption. How appropriate that his denouement came on the very day that John McCain was nominated by Republicans to be their presidential standard-bearer, and only one week after the Democratic Party convention.

The timing is appropriate because it puts the corrupting power of corporate lobbyists back in the news, even as both parties were chanting that they will be the agents of "change" in Washington.

In St. Paul and Denver, Republicans and Democrats alike were posing as ethical purists who would take on the special interests. Yet, out of camera view, those very interests were honored guests at both gatherings! They sat in the platinum-level splendor of skyboxes, watching and winking as the rhetoric flowed.

What neither party wants you to know is that their presidential nominating conventions were paid for by the latter-day Jack Abramoffs, who were sipping cocktails and schmoozing with elected officials in those corporate suites.

More than 100 corporations, from AFLAC to Xerox, pumped in about $1 million each to finance the shows below, including some 25 corporate swingers that sponsored both events.

McCain's pretense was especially cynical. Even though he publicly assails lobbyists as "birds of prey" who are after "the spoils" of government, he literally has put them in charge of his White House bid.

Campaign manager Rick Davis is a longtime lobbyist for AT&T and other telecom giants that have received legislative favors from Sen. McCain. Chief strategist Charlie Black is the dean of Washington's lobbying corps, representing such clients as Blackwater, GE, Philip Morris and Rupert Murdoch. Former top economic advisor Phil Gramm (who may become treasury secretary if McCain wins) is lobbying director for UBS, the Swiss-based banking conglomerate.

Fundraising chairman Wayne Berman lobbies for the Carlyle Group, Chevron, Shell, Verizon and others. The campaign's national security advisor, Randy Scheunemann, is a lobbyist for foreign governments, including the Republic of Georgia, whose cause McCain has embraced.

"Well, so what?" ask those who ply the trade. "Yes, we peddle political influence, but, hey, it's not illegal, except when an Abramoff takes the practice too far. Ours is an honorable profession that performs the noble function of enhancing the democratic participation of our clients. We are political guides and interpreters, merely helping these citizens maximize their voices in the halls of government.

And we most certainly comply with the laws written to assure our ethical behavior."

Sheesh. Do we look like we have sucker wrappers around our heads? First, these Washington fixers only enhance the voices of "citizens" who can afford $600-an-hour lobbying fees. But, second, complying with Washington's ethical rules is a breeze and farce, since the lobbyists are inside the system writing the rules, making sure they are looser than a shoplifter's overcoat.

Last year, when Democrats took charge of Congress, there was a loud pledge by the new House leaders to reform the culture of corruption that had become pervasive under GOP leader Tom DeLay. Sure enough, in the Democrats' first month, such crass practices as letting lobbyists pay for members' junkets and rides on corporate jets were banned. Good! Hurrahs all around.

But, hold the champagne. Behind the scenes, the system had quietly punched a neat loophole into the ballyhooed reform. While a lobbyist can no longer put a key congress-critter on a client's jet and pay for a golfing getaway in Bermuda, the lobbyist can simply give $5,000 or so to the critter's campaign fund, so he or she can "pay their own way."

In another twist, at the recent Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, numerous lobbyist-sponsored parties were thrown to "honor" certain powerful members of Congress. Such shameless butt-kissing was supposedly banned by the 2007 lobbying reforms. But, through creative loopholery, the House ethics committee ruled before the conventions that the ban applies only to events honoring a single lawmaker, not to those benefiting two or more. As Lily Tomlin puts it, "No matter how cynical you get, it's almost impossible to keep up."

Some 35,000 lobbyists swarm our Capitol City — 65 for each of the 535 members of Congress. Corporate America is spending $6 million a day on this plutocratic, kleptocratic system, perverting the power of government to serve its narrow self-interest. Also, guided by their lobbyists, corporate interests dole out millions more each year in campaign donations that bind members of both parties to the corporate agenda.

The corruption is not a matter of the occasional Abramoff. The system itself is corrupt, giving moneyed interests the power to shout down the voice of the people.

Can this corporate stranglehold on the common good be broken? Yes! Such states as Maine, Arizona, Connecticut and North Carolina have shown the way by providing the alternative of public financing for candidates who agree to take no funding from special interests. It's a reform that works.

To learn more, including how you can help bring this reform to your state and to Congress, go to

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at



2 Comments | Post Comment
Corporate lobbyists "Agents of change". Indeed!
Comment: #1
Posted by: liz
Tue Sep 30, 2008 7:30 PM

Today U.S. Corporations are operating illegally and criminally according to the framers of the Constitution, the letter of the laws set up by our founders show that they are operating as tyrannical as the British who we fought against to rid ourselves of their tyrannical ways.

The Preamble of the Constitution of the United States begins with these words:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

In 1776, American colonists declared independence from England, they also freed themselves from control by English corporations that extracted their wealth and dominated trade. After fighting a revolution to end this exploitation, our country's founders retained a vigorous fear of corporate power and wisely limited corporations exclusively to a business role. Read carefully what the formers said and see if the logical conclusion that I have come to is not correct regarding the illegal and criminal manner in which our corporate special interest groups operate.

The corporations from the onset were forbidden from attempting to influence elections, public policy, and other realms of civic society. Our current “Lobbying system” is the process of petitioning government to influence public policy. Today, Corporate America spends $3 billion annually to “buy” legislation; this is contrary to the letter of the law. While this right is one of the most treasured rights in a democracy. The manner of “contributing” to Congressmen/women makes them forget whom they represent.

From the beginning, the privilege of incorporation was granted selectively to enable activities that benefited the public, such as construction of roads or canals. Enabling shareholders to profit was seen as a means to that end. The states also imposed conditions (some of which remain on the books today) such as: Corporate charters (licenses to exist) were granted for a limited time and could be revoked promptly for violating laws; they could engage only in activities necessary to fulfill their chartered purpose; they could not own stock in other corporations nor own any property that was not essential to fulfilling their chartered purpose; they were often terminated if they exceeded their authority or caused public harm; the owners and managers were responsible for criminal acts committed on the job; they could not make any political or charitable contributions nor spend money to influence law making.

For about 100 years after the American Revolution, legislators maintained tight control of the corporate chartering process. Then came the American Civil War, which history shows was caused by the freeing of the slaves, when in reality, it was Northern States corporations that practiced tyranny with the Southern State farmers.

In 1864 Abraham Lincoln wrote the following in a letter to his friend William Elkins:

“We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood…. It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.”

The States also limited corporate charters to a set number of years. Unless a legislature renewed an expiring charter, the corporation was dissolved and its assets were divided among shareholders. Citizen authority clauses limited capitalization, debts, land holdings, and sometimes, even profits. They required a company's accounting books to be turned over to a legislature upon request. The power of large shareholders was limited by scaled voting, so that large and small investors had equal voting rights. Interlocking directorates were outlawed. Shareholders had the right to remove directors at will.

In 1819 the U.S. Supreme Court tried to strip states of this absolute right by overruling a lower court's decision that allowed New Hampshire to revoke a charter granted to Dartmouth College by King George III. The Court claimed that since the charter contained no revocation clause, it could not be withdrawn. The Supreme Court's attack on state sovereignty outraged citizens. Laws were written or re-written and new state constitutional amendments passed to circumvent the Dartmouth ruling. Over several decades starting in 1844, nineteen states amended their constitutions to make corporate charters subject to alteration or revocation by their legislatures. As late as 1855 it seemed that the Supreme Court had gotten the people's message when in Dodge v. Woolsey it reaffirmed state's powers over "artificial bodies."

But the men running corporations pressed on. Contests over charter were battles to control labor, (such is the auto bailout by Bush) resources, community rights, and political sovereignty. More and more frequently, corporations were abusing their charters to become conglomerates and trusts. (Better known today as the Special Interest Groups.) They converted the nation's resources and treasures into private fortunes, creating factory systems and company towns. Today they run the nation as if it were a plantation.

The industrial age forced a nation of farmers to become wage earners, and they became fearful of unemployment--a new form of terror or fear that corporations quickly learned to exploit and control. Company towns arose and blacklists of labor organizers and workers who spoke up for their rights became common. When workers began to organize, industrialists and bankers hired private armies to keep them in line. They bought newspapers to paint businessmen as heroes and shape public opinion. Corporations bought state legislators, then announced legislators were corrupt and said that they used too much of the public's resources to scrutinize every charter application and corporate operation.

Government spending during the Civil War brought these corporations fantastic wealth. Corporate executives paid "borers" (lobbyists) to infest Congress and state capitals, bribing elected and appointed officials alike. They pried loose an avalanche of government financial gifts. During this time, legislators were persuaded to give corporations limited liability, decreased citizen authority over them, and extended durations of charters. Attempts were made to keep strong charter laws in place, but with the courts applying legal doctrines that made protection of corporations and corporate property the center of constitutional law, citizen sovereignty was undermined. As corporations grew stronger, government and the courts became easier prey. They freely reinterpreted the U.S. Constitution and transformed common law doctrines.

A United States Congressional committee concluded in 1941,

"The principal instrument of the concentration of economic power and wealth has been the corporate charter with unlimited power...."

Many U.S.-based corporations are now global, but the corrupted charter remains the legal basis for their existence. To reclaim Democracy we must believe citizens can reassert the convictions of our nation's founders who struggled successfully to free us from corporate rule in the past. These changes must occur at the most fundamental level -- the U.S. Constitution.

We hope that President Elect Barack Obama will do just that. Bring back the power of Democracy in the hands of the people, where it was meant to be!

Comment: #2
Posted by: Alfred H. artze
Tue Feb 3, 2009 1:20 PM
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