Powerful members of Congress

January 25, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

How often have you heard this phrase: “powerful members of Congress.”  It gets under my skin.  It sometimes makes me seethe. I saw it on the front page of yesterday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch dealing with the President’s State of the Union address:

The prospects: Democrats in Congress have proposed raising the requirement to 60 billion gallons of 2030.  Some experts say big reductions in gas usage won’t happen unless Bush orders much higher fuel economy standards, which powerful members of Congress would resist.

[By the way, I’m not trying to single out the Post-Dispatch. This is just an illustrtionAlmost every media publisher across America also uses this phrase] 

So there it is.  Some members of Congress are more “powerful” than others.  What does that mean?  Does it mean that they go to the gym more often so that they have big muscles?  Or does it mean something more sinister?  And if it’s a sinister thing, why is it so nonchalantly placed on the front page of the newspaper as though it’s not a scandalous thing?

There’s nothing in the Constitution that would give any clue to the mania of “powerful member of Congress.” To the extent that belonging to a particular political party makes one “powerful,” the Constitution is totally silent about political parties.  The “power” of Congress should not be determined by reference to who belongs to what club.  When it comes down to voting on issues, each member of Congress has the same number of votes as every other member of Congress.  And it can’t really be party politics to which the Post-Dispatch is referring in this case, because the allegedly “powerful members of Congress” who would “resist” meaningful energy policy changes are Republicans, who have recently been voted into the minority status.

Here’s why use of this term by journalists makes me angry: “Powerful members of Congress” are the recipients of lots of corporate money.  Huge corporations have locked onto the reality that certain members of Congress, more than others, respond favorably and predictably to the receipt of money.  If you pay them, they will be your puppets.  And see here. If you pay them a lot of money, they will throw around some of that money so that some of their peers will also become your puppets.

I don’t remember learning about “powerful members of Congress” in my grade school or high school civics classes.  I do remember lessons where we recited the Pledge of Allegiance and we became teary-eyed when we spoke about a Constitution that none of us really understood much.  But we did learn this much: our country is supposed to be about fairness.  We would have been surprised to learn, even as grade schoolers, that some people are more equal than others. 

Whenever a corporate media outlet nonchalantly refers to “powerful member of Congress” an important story is being buried, a story that is usually much bigger than the thing ostensibly being discussed.

Here is how I would rewrite that small paragraph for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

All members of Congress know that we need to reduce the amount of gasoline we use as a national security measure.  The following members of Congress [name them] have resisted efforts to protect our national interest by reducing gasoline usage.  They are receiving huge amounts of money from oil companies [specify the amounts received by each resisting member of Congress].  They are accepting such huge amounts of money from the very same corporations that will be affected by their votes on energy issues.  That is how many members of Congress are considering critical energy legislation: accepting huge piles of money from oil companies while then pretending to be objective.  They want us to write about them as “powerful members of Congress.” We will not do that.  Instead, we will tell you, dear readers, that those members of Congress are corrupt and that the entire campaign finance system needs to be revamped before we will have any honest deliberations about oil usage or any other important issue.

Or how about this option (Option 2):  Never again refer to these people as “powerful members of Congress.”  Instead, refer to them as “corrupt politicians who feed out of the oil industry trough.” 

This is really a simple issue to understand.  To illustrate, imagine that there is a close play at first-base.  While the umpire is considering whether the base runner is safe, the base runner walks over and hands the umpire $10,000.  Therefore, this is not one of those complex issues that newspapers refuse to write because it will “bore” the readers. It is a national tragedy affecting every citizen in a personal way.  It threatens the American way of life in a dramatic way. If big-time daily newspapers can’t figure out how to convey the importance of this issue, they should stop calling themselves “newspapers.”  Instead, they should call themselves “The Daily Go Buy Something You Probably Don’t Need Pamphlets.”

I know that my proposed rewrite of the Post-Dispatch article is sheer fantasy.  It would never happen with a big city newspaper owned by a big for-profit corporation. Not yet. 

We should be shocked to learn that inequality can be bought. We should be astounded that a major newspaper doesn’t give a damn about inequity and that it would quarantine off big stories rather than deal with them.  Let’s do something about it!  It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Not until we start financing our political campaigns with public tax money instead of private corporate money that directly benefits the giver. See here for more about what you can do about this urgent problem:


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Category: Communication, Consumerism, Economy, Energy, Environment, global warming, Politics, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Kit says:

    I think you're looking for a story where there is none. Of course there is all kinds of corruption and money flowing through the hallowed corridors of our government. In THIS case, however, the term simply means (in most cases) members of Congress who have plum positions – membership in or chair/vice-chair of important committees. Because so much happens INSIDE committees, committee membership is very important. A lot of bills never make it out of committee, way more than we realize.

    Usually, these positions are based on seniority. One of the reasons many states keep voting in old fart incumbents is that those guys have put in the time to be on the purse-string committees.

    Not the best system in the world, but not the sinister evidence you assert, IMHO.

  2. Devi says:

    Reminds me of a quote I heard on NPR recently when discussing 'ethics reform' congress, something to the effect of complaining about the lobbyist as sharks while holding a bucket of chum.

    It may not have been a specific sinister reason for the phrase used in this particular story, but the point is still very important: that the more powerful congress members, those in prime committee chairs, are the ones that have been able to get elected because they can raise a lot of money. They raise money to get elected, and keep getting money because of what they do for the people that gave them money. No big surprise that GWB's largest single contributor for one of his campaigns was MBNA, and now MBNA doesn't get monitored/regulated by the administration. More later from me on that, I'm writing a post on it.

  3. Scholar says:

    Last night, Dan Rather did a story about congressional contributions titled "The Best Congress Money Can Buy". Seems like it was right on queue with the content here at DangerousIntersection. Here is the transcript, it was an excellent program. His new news program is for HDNET and seems completely unbiased…


    At one point, they actually listed the amounts which the various senators/reps had received. The amounts were into the millions, not to mention the job offers, and other undocumented bribes. Then he focused on the issue of "payday lending" institutions (post 962) and how they had also bribed members of congress to look the other way.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Thanks, Scholar, for the link to the compelling transcript from Dan Rather's show. Check out these part, for example:

    When school children are taken through the Capitol, the great dome, they're taught, this is where laws are made. This is where the dance of legislation gets carried out. True? That's where the laws are voted on, but that is not where they are first conceived and where the hard sausage-making process happens. It's all in these buildings and offices. I remember when I went to school they didn't even mention lobbyists in history books. There were the three branches of government.

    I had no idea until I was an adult and I arrived here that everything I read was basically, not right. It's not really how it works here. To show how us how it does work, Lewis took us to a new kind of Washington Monument devoted to influence-peddling. At 101 Constitution Avenue where Pennsylvania avenue ends and congress begins sits a gleaming, new ten-story building. It is home to some of the busiest paid-persuaders, among them mining, insurance and tobacco interests. On the ground floor is an elegant restaurant, Charlie Palmer, where lobbyists and lawmakers meet over 80-dollar steaks.

    101 Constitution has been called K-street in a box. If folks want to see what really goes on in Washington, they should skip the capitol and come over here to this building . . .

    But not everyone has a lobbyist. Here's where it breaks down. What about the groups that don't have any lobbying at all? What about the 60-80 million who are under-insured or uninsured with healthcare? What about the one in six children living in poverty? Who do they talk to? They don't have a lobbyist. And so, what happens is you have thousands and I do mean thousands of lobbyists on one side imparting this very important information, that possibly might not be entirely objective information and you have no one on the other side saying " well wait a minute. Are you sure? Did you think about this?" without a lobbyist, it is hard to develop relationships with lawmakers.

    And there is no better way of developing a relationship, says Lewis, than by whisking a member of congress or their staff away from Washington for so-called " educational" or " investigative" trips. The last five years members of congress or their staff have taken 23,000 trips around the world . . .

    [Note: Charles Lewis is the founder of the Center for Public Integrity.]

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