The dismal influence of money in politics is an old story that has only become more troubling in recent years with the wholesale corruption of the Republican Party under former President Donald Trump — the most crooked politician ever to hold high office in the United States. Not only is Trump himself a grifter and a tax cheat, but he appointed a cabinet full of similarly bent characters. Most of the Republicans in Congress are scarcely better.
But what about the Democrats, who so often present themselves as the party of reform? Although we've seen few outright scandals in recent years that implicate Democratic members of Congress, especially compared with the Trumpian orgy of misconduct, the current struggle over President Joe Biden's spending plans offers a stark reminder that corporate cash wields toxic influence in both parties.
Unsurprisingly, the outstanding examples on the Democratic side happen to involve Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, both of whom have obstructed their own president's bold program for change.
Despite her flashy and unorthodox style, Sinema represents the mundane chicanery of politics as usual. Although the press often portrays her as a "maverick," she embodies the venerable cliche that the true scandal in Washington is what politicians do that's perfectly legal: They solicit and accept enormous amounts of money from corporate special interests and then act to thwart any legislative action that might curb abuses by those who have paid them. For some reason this is not classified as bribery.
In Sinema's case, that particular special interest is the pharmaceutical industry, known without affection as Big Pharma, which has enriched her political accounts with roughly a million dollars. Now she has informed the president and her colleagues that she won't support a provision in the Build Back Better bill that requires Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices in bulk — saving billions for taxpayers and consumers.
The pharma lobbyists, now constantly airing ads that praise Sinema in her home state, claim that this reform would somehow deprive patients of lifesaving medications and procedures. The opposite is true. There is simply no reason why the United States shouldn't deal with Big Pharma the same way every other industrialized country handles that vital but predatory sector.
Evidently Sinema feels no need to explain why she so brazenly abandoned her campaign promise to bring down prescription drug prices, but why should she? We already know why.
Manchin's money problem is equally obvious but far more ominous. As a joint report by The Intercept and Type Investigations disclosed in detail last month, the West Virginia senator moonlights as a coal baron while chairing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Since founding his two energy companies in the 1980s — when he was already a state legislator — the conservative Democrat has earned at least $4.5 million from their lethal and heavily polluting operations, while holding as much as $5 million more in stock options. His son Joe Manchin IV now oversees both firms, while the senator's personal interest is held, he says, in a "blind trust."
The Intercept investigation revealed the grimy details of Manchin's business, which brokers the dirtiest waste coal to power electric plants. The larger Manchin firm, known as Enersystems, "sold coal from mines that not only violated the Clean Water Act but also served as dumping grounds for carcinogenic coal ash ... Enersystems coal has fueled power plants that are major producers of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter." The specific consequences include hundreds of annual deaths, heart attacks, asthma and additional cancer clusters due to pollution.
And of course, the continued combustion of coal drives the inexorable, planet-destroying increase in global average temperatures. While Manchin says he too worries about climate change, he insists that eliminating fossil fuels, as Biden wants to do by 2050, is unacceptable to him. Just as with Sinema, we already know why he feels so strongly.
The arrogance of these politicians — and their assumption that we must accept their unethical behavior — demonstrates just how deeply compromised our system is. Sinema doesn't feel she must explain anything, and Manchin erupted in anger recently when a reporter dared to ask about his filthy fortune.
Asked by a Bloomberg reporter whether his energy holdings are a conflict of interest when he negotiates the Biden bill's climate change provisions, he offered the "blind trust" excuse. "You're still getting dividends," replied the reporter, noting that Manchin's son runs the firms now.
"You got a problem?" barked the angry senator.
Yes, Joe, we've got a very big and bad problem. And you're making it worse.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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