THE BUYING OF THE CONGRESS By Charles Lewis and the Center for Public Integrity. Published by Avon Books, New York, NY 10019, USA, 1998. pp: 411. Price: $25.00.
The west, we are so often told, owes its pre-eminence to the universality of its liberal values and democracy of its political institutions. It is these, we are further told, which entitles it to lead the world, claiming the moral high ground on every issue, and imposing its will (for the greater public good, of course) on all others.
In reality, there is nothing particularly liberal about western values, or democratic about western institutions, however those problematic terms may be defined. The fact that the whole world regards the west, particularly the US, as somehow emblematic of these supposed ideals is in truth no more than a triumph of public relations, marketing and advertising. And yet, so effective is this marketing strategy that Americans and others alike fall for this propaganda virtually every time, despite the mass of evidence to the contrary.
This new book, The Buying of Congress - how special interests have stolen your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, by Charles Lewis and the Center for Public Integrity, is an excellent addition to the ample literature exposing the truth behind this particularly thin public relations facade. It is likely to be widely and positively reviewed, do well in the best-sellers lists, be recognised as a devastating expos of the true state of US government institutions, but then disappear from the public consciousness leaving virtually no trace whatsoever.
In the long run, it will probably serve the interests of the US establishment rather than challenge them, for the very fact that such books can be published is used in the west to promote the myths of open government and freedom of speech.
And yet... maybe someone, somewhere, will read it and take notice, for it is undoubtedly a thoroughly researched and excellently written analysis of the true role of the Congress. The authors of this book - Charles Lewis claims credit only for editing it, although he is listed as the author - start by pointing out that every possible aspect of life in America is influenced by Congressional decisions, from the food people eat, the work they do, the houses they live in, to the air they breathe.
They go on to illustrate very convincingly that rather than working for the good of the people, the system is deliberately manipulated by moneyed interests, particularly big business, so it effectively works to serve their commercial needs rather than the public interest. Nor is this the inevitable case of a few bad apples; Lewis concludes that the federal government has been reduced to ‘a corrupt system which perpetrates itself and besmirches all its participants.’
The main business interests indentified are tobacco (led by the Phillip Morris Company), food, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, trucking, and the gun lobby. The way in which these impinge on the welfare of the people as a whole is immediately obvious in most cases.
Among the more shocking examples raised in the book is the law which permits drug companies to market their drugs for any use provided they have been federally approved for one use. The result is that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of drugs are prescribed each year for conditions for which they may not be suitable, and in many cases they are actually damaging or dangerous.
It may seem obvious that pharmaceutical companies should not sell drugs for purposes other than those for which they have been approved. But the companies have cultivated dozens of congressmen and women, and succeeded in preventing such ‘off label’ marketing from being prohibited. This is unlikely to be unconnected to the fact that pharmaceutical companies gave more than $9.3 million to support individual candidates during the 1995-96 congressional elections alone. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people each year continue to be harmed by taking inappropriate drugs.
Of course, such monies are not all passed to individual politicians in brown envelopes; that would be too blatantly illegal and corrupt. Instead, Lewis traces a long list of different ways in which a special interest can buy politicians with both parties being perfectly clear on what is going on, but with sufficient distance to pretend that there is nothing improper about it.
Companies, for example, send politicians and their families on ‘fact finding’ trips; these, Lewis points out ironically, tend to be to California, Florida or the more desirable foreign destinations, rather than Pittsburgh or Albuquerque. Companies also make large donations to ‘political action committees’ rather than individuals, which these PACs can then choose to spend in support of any politician they choose. Lewis’s willingness to name names - in connection with ‘off label’ uses of medicines, he fingers Newt Gingrich, who recently resigned as leader of the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, and Trent Lott among others - merely adds to a sense of a deeply researched piece of work.
The examples he cites go on and on. Another point worth focussing on briefly is the role of innocent sounding lobbies which actually serve completely different interests, allowing politicians to pretend they are serving a good purpose while actually working for paymasters with wholly ulterior motives. This is a tactic evidently used to particularly good effect by the tobacco industry, which finances such innocent-sounding groups as the ‘New York Society for International Affairs’, the ‘Citizens for a Sound Economy’ and the ‘Progress and Freedom Foundation’, all of which indirectly promote the industry’s interests.
The same holds true for pro-Israeli lobbies. The vast majority of lobby groups are actually financed by American Jews under the guise of innocent-sounding PACs. This has not prevented them from maintaining their own flagship, the US-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is the most brazen and pushy group around on Capitol Hill.
One former lobbyist’s comments are worth quoting in full: Victor Crawford, who went on to develop lung cancer, says that ‘you [as a tobacco lobbyist] often work for front groups... for example, if we wanted to get rid of [FDA Commissioner] David Kessler... I would have funded AIDS groups and got them all fired up that he’s not approving anti-AIDS drugs fast enough. Raise all kinds of hell and go to Bill Clinton to fire Kessler. And who would benefit? Tobacco, of course. But the AIDS people would do the dirty work... that’s how it’s done. You never leave your fingerprints at the scene of the crime.’
For non-westerners used to being lectured by the west on corruption, such revelations are likely to be shocking indeed. Lewis has 400 pages of them, in what is an impressively researched and referenced book. Yet, the question arises, how come this situation is allowed to continue? The answer is simple: because all the many critics of the western system never realize that what they are doing goes beyond criticising systems and institutions to disproving the very assumptions of liberalism and democracy on which those systems and institutions claim to be based.
The very name ‘Center for Public Integrity’ betrays its members’ naivety; the problem is not the integrity of individuals, it is systemic. Instead of concluding that democracy does not work, they simply demand that it be made to work better, despite the ample evidence that, for most so-called democrats, it is working fine already - serving the interests of the moneyed elites is their very purpose rather than, as these critics seem always to conclude, an abuse of their purpose. Until the ideological basis of the system is challenged, nothing will change.
The system deliberately permits the existence of harmless critical groups such as this, and of ‘intellectuals’ such as Noam Chomsky who criticise fiercely but offer no alternatives other than an appeal to the same PR slogans of ‘liberalism’ and ‘democracy’, for it justifies and legitimises their claims to be genuinely open and democratic. One is almost tempted to wonder who the silent, unknown sponsors of the Center for Public integrity really are...