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Bill Moyers and Michael Winship: The unbearable lightness of reform

Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

That wickedly satirical Ambrose Bierce described politics as “the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

Bierce vanished to Mexico nearly a hundred years ago, but in an eerie way he was forecasting America’s political culture today. It seems like most efforts to reform a system that’s gone awry end up benefiting the very people who wrecked it in the first place.

Which is why Bierce, in his classic little book “The Devil’s Dictionary,” defined reform as “a thing that mostly satisfies reformers opposed to reformation.”

So we got health care reform last month. Give the victors their due: The bill President Obama signed expands coverage to many more people and stops some very ugly and immoral practices by the health insurance industry that should have been stopped long ago.

But reformation? Hardly. For all their screaming and gnashing of teeth, the insurance companies still make out like bandits. Millions of new customers, under penalty of law, will be required to buy the companies’ policies. They don’t have to worry about competition from a public alternative to their cartel, and they can continue to scam us without fear of anti-trust action.

Another case of reform gone off track: A year and a half after Wall Street brought us so close to fiscal hell we could smell the brimstone, a crippled little financial regulation bill seems to be hobbling out of the wreckage but still faces an array of well-armed forces gunning for it.

No wonder. In the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, members of the Senate Banking Committee — which sent the bill to Congress this week — received more than $39 million from Wall Street and the banks; members of the House Financial Services Committee raked in more than $21 million — so far. Just how serious do you think they’re going to be about true reform?

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat, has sounded like a champion of reform ever since he announced he will not run for re-election. It’s about time. Since 2005, his top 10 campaign contributors have included Citigroup, A.IG, Merrill Lynch and the now-deceased Bear Stearns, all front-line players in bringing on the financial calamity.

Then there are the Republicans, shamelessly hawking their favors en masse to the highest bidder. The Web site Politico.com reports that the re-election campaign of Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker — who’s one of the key negotiators on financial reform — sent an e-mail to Wall Street lobbyists and others soliciting contributions of up to $10,000 for a chance to meet or grab a meal with the senator.

Informed of the e-mail, Corker was shocked — shocked! — saying the e-mail was “grotesque and inappropriate.” But did House Republican leader John Boehner think it was inappropriate last week when he advised the American Bankers Association to fight back against the proposed rules and regulations?

This is, of course, the same John Boehner who in the summer of 1995 walked around the floor of the House of Representatives handing out checks to his fellow Republicans — checks from a tobacco company. And the same John Boehner who was the grateful recipient of campaign contributions from the four Native American tribes represented by Jack Abramoff, the corrupt lobbyist currently cooling his heels in a federal corrections facility.

So wouldn’t it have been fascinating to have been a fly on the wall earlier this year when Boehner sat down for drinks with Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase? Reportedly, he invited Dimon and the rest of the financial community to pony up the cash and see what good things follow.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Republicans already were receiving an increasing share of campaign contributions from the Street. In the game of reform, it’s the political version of loading the dice.

We can’t know for sure what Ambrose Bierce would have made of all this. But he might have agreed that the only answer to organized money is organized people. That would be one hell of a reformation.

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.