“People should be outraged …”

It is part of the job of the modern American corporation to reward public servants for a job well done.

There probably should be a category of “de minimis” for this, since it involves a form of corruption that is so endemic to the ossified state of our capital-politico way of doing “business” that you are well within your rights to think me churlish for even bringing it up. I refer to Federal Communications Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker’s announcement that she will resign her position on the regulatory board and become a congressional lobbyist for Comcast Corporation. This announcement comes four months after she voted in favor of the controversial merger of Comcast and NBC, a merger she seemed to promote as a regulator, given her press statements that “You shouldn’t attach conditions that are extraneous to the actual deal in front of you.” [The “you” in that quote seems to mean “her.”] As a long-time Republican with connections to the Party’s elite (she is married to the son of James Baker, former chief of staff to the Modern Republican Icon), it’s no surprise that what was considered “extraneous” to that deal (and all others) is the public interest.

There has been some comment in the press yesterday that casts in a dark light the connection between her vote and her new paying gig. Words like “revolving door,” “sleazy,” “unseemly,” and other pejorative remarks have been cast on her decision to use her position of an industry regulator as a stepping stone to her personal wealth accumulation as part of the industry she enabled, but I am not going to make a case that she was motivated by personal corruption or even that the move created an appearance of impropriety.

“People should be outraged about this kind of blatant revolving-door activity, where one day you’re supposed to be a public servant, and the next day you simply go to work advocating for these big companies,” says Craig Aaron, president of the media advocacy group Free Press, was quoted in an AP story carried on NPR’s site. But she is complying with the law. The law says she can’t lobby the FCC for two years, and she won’t. She’ll lobby Congress until that ban expires. You see? Everything is above-board. Just like the dealings between former Senator John Ensign and his former aide, which likewise seems to have involved a sort of revolving door—although one involving much more prurient interest—it appars that she did not violate “any law, any rule or a standard of conduct,” as the lascivious legislator put it when he resigned.

Meredith Atwell Baker. As commissioner she championed the cause of Comcast as a public servant. And now she will continue that sacred campaign in the halls of Congress as a paid servant of Comcast.

Nor am I going to use the occasion to comment on how the vaunted bipartisanship of our President works in practice. You see, Mrs. Baker was appointed to the FCC by our socialist president. It was part of his private affirmative action program for Republicans. In this case he appointed a person who was acting assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for his predecessor. And she was a person who opposed the whole concept of “net neutrality.”  When our President was seeking progressives’ votes “net neutrality” was something he heartily endorsed. But that did not prevent him from appointing a person to a commission where the issue would be determined. Perhaps the result of Mrs. Baker’s career, however, is exactly what the President envisioned. After all, his deal with Big Pharma as part of his health insurance reform initiative (to take just one example) has all the characteristics of deal-making by a person who believes that quid pro quos with Corporate America represent progressivism’s new future. For all the grief he receives as a former “community organizer,” you often get the impression that his background was as an Amway sponsor. Monty Hall as Mother Jones. Or maybe this is just another thing that Rahm Emanuel did when the President was not looking.

No, all of this is beyond me. I have far too simple a view of public interest, a view that seems to have permanently fallen out of favor. No, what I am interested in is how the Associated Press put this story in “context.” The author of the AP article (Peter Overby), from which the title quote of this post comes, posted by NPR (the link to which I’ll give again), must have thought that he had gone overboard in condemning the “revolving door” through which our rulers pass—for our benefit on one side of the door; for their own on the other side.  So he sought out someone to give the other side. And he found Thomas Susman. This is how Mr. Overby describes Mr. Susman: “head lobbyist for the American Bar Association and a longtime student of ethics-in-government issues.” This is what the ABA-endorsed Mr. Susman has to say about the ethical issue involved:

“I’m a big fan of the revolving door,” says Susman . . . .

He says it’s good to let people move between business and government, and that laws can catch those who abuse the public trust.

“I don’t like the results of saying you can’t do it,” he says. “And so, therefore, I suspect I’m willing to live with public perception, you know, of cronyism, and the occasional situation where it actually proves detrimental to the public good.”

He says he can’t see a way to completely regulate the revolving door without blowing up people’s careers.

“If the alternative is to develop a cadre of government officials who never have been in private practice … and are never going there, I’m not sure that that’s the kind of people I want having so much power over our economy,” he says.

This legal and ethical scholar advises us that he is “willing to live with public perception, you know, of cronyism, and the occasional situation where it actually proves detrimental to the public good.” And if someone who has so disinterestedly considered this issue and looked so deeply into the heart of man and of the rules needed to govern him as Mr. Susman has, who are we, the mere public, to have any perception at all? And it’s damned magnanimous of lobbyist Susman; after all, his position likely means he’ll get competition from government officials who are likely to be better lobbyists, with their recent connections and appearance of cronyism and all, than he, a humble private lobbyist! Given that Mr. Susman has no ax to grind, I guess we should be satisfied that we can afford the “occasional situation” where this apparent sleaziness “actually proves detrimental to the public good.”

Thomas Susman says he's a fan of the "revolving door," but in fact it does not exist. The public interest leads into his own with out any portal at all.

Thomas Susman says he’s a fan of the “revolving door,” but in fact it does not exist. The public interest leads into his own without any portal at all. (Photo by Ron Aira in the ABA Journal.)

But wait. Did Mr. Overby give us the whole story? According to his bio at Ropes & Gray, the law firm of which he was once a partner, Mr. Susman does not seem to be the scholar of ethics that the AP story makes him out. And he doesn’t seem all that magnanimous or objective. Far from being “bothered” by the revolving door, he seems to have used that entrance to a lucrative career. True, Mr. Susman doesn’t seem to have made a career of going through it, back and forth, like a child delighting in the entrance to Bloomingdale’s. But shabbier careers have been made on small fixes. And here is what he did before he became a member of the once hallowed firm:

Before joining Ropes & Gray in 1981, Tom served on Capitol Hill for over 11 years. He was Chief Counsel to the Senate Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure and General Counsel to the Antitrust Subcommittee and to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

And what did he do as a member?

Tom handled legislative matters on behalf of both large and small clients – businesses, trade associations, and nonprofit organizations – in a variety of industries. He was active in seeking enactment of legislation, in obtaining appropriations for specific projects, in blocking or amending legislative proposals, and in counseling targets of congressional investigations.

This is a person who has made the public interest work for him. It’s the new American way. No wonder he is a self-proclaimed fan of the revolving door. After all the public interest is served by experts who see the problem from both sides: the industry’s as current employer and the industry’s as future employer.

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