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Money continues to walk corridors of power

One of best and worst things that happened to U.S. politics in this decade was Ross Perot. Look at it this way: Without the populist pressure he momentarily mobilized, it would be business as usual.

Meaning, when it comes to handing out the cream off the political milk churn, the beneficiaries would be: business, as usual. We live in a "corpocracy," a word probably coined by Richard Darman, a close Reagan aide and Office of Management and Budget director in the Bush administration.

The new season is upon us. The machinery of government for some of the people part of the time was set to resume Feb. 4 when Congress reconvened. The American people find themselves under the care of two limping leaders -- President Clinton in the White House and Speaker Gingrich in the other House, both of whom carry around with them the seeds of their own destruction -- and a conservative U.S. Senate. The 1994 reformist Republican revolutionaries who fell in line behind Brave Old Duke of York Gingrich -- who marched them up to the City on the Hill and marched them back down again in his own disgrace -- have matured. They realize that "politics as usual" is how they stay in office.

At the newly re-enfranchised 50 state capitols and governors' mansions, rewarded with the dubious distinction of now being responsible for their own needy citizens and the poor, doubts are setting in. Already there is talk of some states handing the problem of the poor over to the counties.

Anyone familiar with county government knows what a fine bastion of democracy, openness, transparency and fiduciary responsibility county governments are. Indeed, they're on a par with Congress and the White House.

Meanwhile, according to financial writer Alan Sloan, General Motors is selling off its Hughes defense business to Raytheon for $9 billion and slithering its way out of paying $3 billion in taxes. Three billion dollars in forgiven taxes is a lot of welfare.

GM -- Welfare King, $3 billion in taxes -- represents the equivalent of $60 million for each state, or $1 million for each of the nation's 3,072 counties. And to many counties, $1 million is megabucks.

And that's what the populists behind Perot were protesting. In effect, the twin to the great hue and cry against big government was the populist hue and cry against big business. It was combined government-corporate disregard for local consequences that was behind the populist anti-NAFTA movement.

The actual numbers of American voters who might like to see the corporate welfare state held accountable, added to those who would like to see the morality of America's capitalist ethic and its ability to control the democracy debated, might be quite impressive.

At his peak, Perot had almost 20 percent of Americans turning out to vote. Further, a fair percentage of social (meaning religious) conservatives are more likely to be economic populists than economic conservatives. More, a decent chunk of those voting Democrat are probably "common good" Americans -- and they don't see corporate influence on government overall contributing to the commonweal.

And the old liberal Republicans, not an endangered species but a practically vanished one, had a noblesse oblige approach that at least paid lip service to economic justice.

But Perot is so utterly unbelievable that he dissipated any gains the populists might have made. The conservatives tend not to separate out their economic from their social agendas. "Common good" Democrats and noblesse oblige Republicans do not have the necessary forums.

So money walks along the White House and Capitol corridors, and settles itself in the chair and asks, "What about me?" And the answer in Washington, despite the headlines, smokescreens, promised reforms and public relations ephemera, is likely to be: Waddya want?

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997