Conducting public business for private gain

It has not been a good week for those whose livelihoods depend on either having access to the power brokers and decision-makers of the Washington federal establishment, or being one of them. Like the great and mighty Wizard of Oz, who was exposed as all too human when Dorothy’s little dog Toto pulled back the curtain, the public’s business in Washington, D.C., was shown to be conducted for private gain.

To begin with, among the multiple stunning revelations from Peter Schweizer’s book, “Throw Them All Out,” was that two past Speakers of the House made millions of dollars as a result of information and opportunities afforded by their positions. Democrat Nancy Pelosi and her husband cashed in big time by getting special access to an initial public offering of Visa stock even as the House under her leadership refused to move important credit card industry reforms. Similarly, Republican Dennis Hastert bought a piece of land back home, then used an earmark to channel federal funds to build a highway nearby. Hastert more than doubled his money when he sold the land not long after.

Making a killing from public service is far from limited to Pelosi and Hastert, and often it’s perfectly legal because Congress exempts itself from many of the laws the rest of us have to observe, including those against insider trading. Lawmakers frequently say that they make a financial sacrifice to serve in Congress, but somehow they manage to leave Washington with a great deal more money than they had when they arrived. As former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wrote Friday in the Wall Street Journal, “the corruption isn’t confined to one political party or just a few bad apples. It’s an endemic problem encompassing leadership on both sides of the aisle. It’s an entire system of public servants feathering their own nests.”

The same culture of corruption is found at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, too. Just this week, President Barack Obama — facing recession-level unemployment and a tough re-election campaign — had a choice between a decision that would create thousands of new jobs, or one that would ensure millions of dollars in campaign contributions for his effort to secure a second term. At least 20,000 new jobs would have resulted if Obama had approved the Keystone XL pipeline, but that would have angered the environmentalists who oppose the project — and who have donated generously to Obama in the past.

You’d think that Obama would have locked up the environmentalist vote with the billions of tax dollars that he’s sent their way already. We learned additional details about that process this week when it was revealed that more than $16 billion of the $20 billion spent by Obama’s clean energy loan program went to companies linked to former members of his White House staff, prominent corporate campaign donors and campaign contribution bundlers. The U.S. Constitution begins with the words “We, the people,” and goes on to frame a government that is supposed to be their servant. It’s time Washington was reminded of who serves whom.

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