Commentary

America has the best politicians money can buy. Let ‘em show it | Frank DeFilippo

Let’s treat our pols like NASCAR treats its drivers. Put sponsorship patches on their suits, so we know where they stand

Politicians like to brag about their fundraising abilities as a measure of their popularity, so why not display it like vendable armor? (Getty Images).

By Frank DeFilippo

NASCAR fire suits resemble patchwork quilts. Golfers wear them on their jerseys and caps. Umpires sport a few, as do minor league baseball uniforms. And now, under a new agreement, so will Major League Baseball uniforms be stitched with patches advertising teams’ sponsors and underwriters, kind of like moving billboards promoting a range of companies and products that appeal to sports fans.

It’s all about the revenue stream, and it’s part of a deal that Major League Baseball team owners reached with players’ negotiators after threatening the season’s start. Everybody gets money. Team owners get ad revenue, and players get raises. Advertisers foot the bill, hopefully in exchange for a bump in sales. The fans? Well, they might get increased ticket prices.

So here’s a novel idea to apply the trend to politics: Why not require members of Congress and other legislative bodies to display sponsor patches on, say, appropriately green blazes like the ones awarded to golf’s Masters tournament winner, to show who their contributors and sponsors are. Politicians like to brag about their fundraising abilities as a measure of their popularity, so why not display it like vendable armor.

After all, in Annapolis, the governor’s patronage appointments are delivered to the General Assembly in a green felt bag, hence the name “Green Bag” appointments, signifying a mercantile interest or investment, or a payback to a friend, supporter or political connection in some way.

Money, more than any other commodity, fertilizes politics. And it wasn’t too long ago that its disguises were a subterfuge. Until the early 1970s, corporate contributions were illegal. Only labor organizations could legally contribute to political campaigns through an entity called Committee on Political Education (COPE).

Corporate contributions were legalized in Maryland in 1974. Until then, “bagmen” regularly collected assigned amounts that were laundered through business’ petty cash accounts, as one example, or, crudely, as many Marylanders know, simply handed off in white envelopes for political or personal use. Even recently, there were other bribes, kickbacks, schemes, scams and convictions to further smudge Maryland’s name despite efforts to cleanse the system.

Cash has been all but eliminated from campaign financial transactions. Walk-around money, in the bad old days the coin of the realm on election day, used to be doled out in cash. No longer. Under new law, the boodle must be distributed by check or debit card as with any other form of compensation. Contributions to campaigns must also be made by check or some form of electronic transfer. The idea is that all of a campaign’s funds are traceable (and that walk-around money is now taxable income? Sheesh).

The Watergate scandal also produced a number of reforms, among them campaign finance. But the reforms that were intended to sanitize the flow of money into campaigns gave rise to political action committees, or PACs, which further contaminated the methods of contribution.

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And of late, the Supreme Court, in its Citizens United decision, declared, in effect, that smokestacks are people with the same rights of expression as any living, breathing citizen. And through it all, we’ve achieved a kind of limbo of dark, untraceable money through nonprofits that underwrites much of the nation’s devious political activity. But shush! Don’t tell the political beneficiaries. They’re not supposed to know who their patrons are.

Until now there was no sure way to fulfilling that bedrock of Americana — the public’s right to know. Petty cash, white envelopes, PACs, corporate contributions, dark money can all be revealed with a simple patch, or, in most cases, multiple patches. In that way, voters can immediately associate sponsors with lawmakers’ words and actions.

So finally, a way to bring political money out into the sunshine.

Begin with Donald Trump. His gift for grift has no limits. The Republican National Committee has said it will pay up to $110 million of his legal bills. Thus, through layers of appeals, there’s little chance of a quick resolution of Trump’s legal tangles. And he has collected more than $100 million from donors in a slush fund that he can use for almost any purpose that can vaguely be construed as political, pocket-change in politics.

It takes about 3 /12 to 4 yards of fabric to make the average men’s suit. There isn’t enough material in a full bolt to tailor an outfit that would accommodate all of the patches necessary to identify Trump’s legion of benighted sponsors. So let’s just hang a sash over his shoulder down to his abundant gut, in glitter letters, labeled — GRIFTER.

Not far behind comes the National Rifle Association’s fan club, Republicans all, not a Democrat among the U.S. Senate          recipients, according to the Brady Campaign list: Sen John Thune, of South Dakota, $638,942; Sen. Martha McSally, of Arizona, $303,853; Sen. Bill Cassidy, of Louisiana, $2.8 million; Sen. David Purdue, of Georgia, $2 million; Sen. Mike Braun, of Indiana, $1.250 million; Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, $176,000; Sen. John Neely Kennedy, of Louisiana, $215,000; Sen. Charles Grassley, of Iowa, $236,000. This is only a partial listing, but you get the picture.

So dress them all in full-on hunting gear, or bulletproof vests, and plaster them with patches of rifles, handguns, Uzis, Glocks, Winchesters, Berettas, shotguns, and, let us not forget, the NRA’s battle-cry – “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms shall not be infringed,” the Second Amendment language conveniently amended to omit the mention of “militia.”

The oil and gas lobby have been generous contributors to a select few who represent their interests. The single largest beneficiary of their largesse has been Sen. Joe Manchin (D), of West Virginia, who is Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. And with members of his family, Manchin, a multi-millionaire, operates a coal brokerage business. Manchin received $742,795. Next is Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, of California, the recipient of $174,462. Comes after him two Texans, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, $172,840, and Rep. Wesley Hunt, $162,846.

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So lets outfit them with jackets patched with oil rigs, drills, pumps, maybe and oil gusher or two, and even the names of energy companies so voters can visually identify who’s jacking up gas prices.

Industries and businesses, by groupings, are without doubt among the largest sources of contributions to members of Congress. And nobody, as would be expected, outpaces Sen. Charles Schumer (D), of New York, as the leading catch-all for campaign donations, according to Open Secret, a campaign finance tracker. After all, Schumer is Senate majority leader, and from that lofty plinth controls the destiny and flow of all legislation.

By group, their generosity is impressive but not without expectations in return. Leading the pack is the grouping lawyers/law firms, with total contributions of $173 million; following are securities/investment, $38 million; real estate, $34 million; lobbyists, $16 million; and insurance, $16 million. In every grouping Schumer is at the head of the class.

This lends itself to an oversized outer-garment, perhaps a trench coat, for an impressive display of patchwork for, say, different legal specialties such as ambo chasing, medical malpractice, divorce (aka family counseling), criminal, white collar (an admitted redundancy) and tax law (with a special enlarged display for Trump’s tax magicians). And leave room for real estate ads, bank and investment brokers and the real estate business. And finally, full-faced likenesses of lobbyists so the public can familiarize themselves with those behind-the-curtain fixers.

Always save the best for last. That would be Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), of Kentucky, alias Yertle the Turtle, whose wife, Elaine Chao, was transportation secretary, while her uber-wealthy father is in the shipping business. Most of McConnell’s wealth, estimated at between $5-$25 million was bestowed upon him by his wife’s family, the Chaos.

Remember, then, that several years ago one of Chao’s ships, a rusty bucket named Ping May, was searched in a Caribbean port in Columbia, and found among its cargo, deep in its holds, were 40 kilos — about 90 pounds — of cocaine. An investigation followed, but McConnell had no comment at the time, according to reporting in The Nation.

And recall, too, that McConnell was Vladimir Putin’s toady when the Russians promised to build the largest aluminum plant in America in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky. McConnell was reported at the time to have accepted $2.5 million in campaign contributions from a Russian oligarch, even though he was not up for election. McConnell jumped through the appropriate hoops, was instrumental in having all the obstacles to the project removed, but the deal went south, according to Politics USA. The Russians played McConnell the same way they played Trump.

So dress McConnell in a sailor’s suit with a huge container ship, like the vessel stuck in the Chesapeake Bay, embroidered across the front of the uniform. To assure compliance, when the emperor wears his new clothes, make sure a big Z (the new Russian war symbol) is tattooed in bright red across his tummy.

Transparency at last. Serendipity.

Frank DeFilippo is a columnist for Maryland Matters, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this column first appeared. 

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