Memphis It’s interesting to watch the Washington two-step ignited by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s pushback against outside groups trying to mobilize against her progressive advocacy and the by catch of other fish squirming in her net. To refresh your memory when the Third Way, a group of more conservative sometime Democrats, pushed against her more populist proposals to expand Social Security, she not only bucked back, but demanded disclosures from banks about where their corporate contributions were going, including to such outfits. In some collateral damage others in turn then cast aspersions at President Obama’s naming of John Podesta, a former Clinton chief-of-staff and liberal DC playmaker, insinuating that his work with the progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress, and his large cardex of corporate donors might influence his work in the White House. Now, the current President of CAP, Neera Tanden, has released the list of their corporate donors for the first time, saying none of them impact their work.
The Center for American Progress has done some good work, and did so under Podesta, and for my part, I liked him and his work in all the dealings I have ever had with him. He is a calm and battletested operator who doesn’t wilt, and that’s good for the President, the White House, and it has had value, whether his advice was taken or not, to ACORN in our day and no doubt to others. No shrinking violet, he had never released his list of donors and probably never lost a moment’s sleep about it, no matter what anyone might have thought about it, one way or another. I’m good with that. He let the chips fall where they may when he ran CAP, and played the hand well and according to his own lights.
I don’t know Neera Tanden. She just released their donor list which has few surprises among big banks, tech, education, and health companies, but does have some when it comes to foreign governments like Taiwan and Japan showing up in the roster, though it’s good to see they are interested in “American progress.” Tanden of course says,
“… the donations have no impact on its work. ‘This is an institution that tries to find the right answers,’ she said in an interview on Thursday. ‘It does not answer to the agenda of any of its individual supporters or corporations.’”
As far as the two-step goes, she’s probably right. All of their donors are too smart and shrewd to try and directly “impact” their reports or impose their “agenda,” but so what, that’s not why they are giving anyway. Their donations are about the coin of the lobbying realm: influence and access. To the degree CAP and the hundreds of others smaller, lefter, righter, or whatevers are operating in the space in DC that is trying to make public policy, then access and influence, even if on others or in general, rather than any specific reports, is the coin of the realm. Anyone would be naïve to think otherwise, no matter how the points are parsed and the story is spun.
The donors, especially the big corporations, have their own experts and outside consultants to crank out reports for them. They don’t need these outfits to do that work, though sometimes it is advantageous if the work is done by others with more legitimacy and aligns with your interests of course.
But, more than that, the influence and access coming from the corporations is always an A/E card without a limit in the politics of Washington. Information is useful and so is knowing people. Being at the table as policy alternatives are debated and offering your “perspective” becomes part of the calculus. Meeting and “exploring” positions becomes part of the shaping that produces the final position. Is this corrupt? Of course not. Is this normal and human? Of course. Is it pristine, pure, independent, and objective? No not that either, but it is part of how the sausage is made.
These outfits and their relationships and so-called partnerships are about their corporate and private interests and not the public interest though, and in the transactional world of DC politics and policy, this is part of the grist for the mill. The biggest bank account in DC may be the “favors” bank, and the “ask” always comes, and the fact that it doesn’t hurt to say “yes,” doesn’t mean that it had no value, impact, or influence.
That’s just the reality. No shaming or finger pointing involved. Senator Warren is right to want to know. Even the Third Way is right to want to know all of the donors. The rest of us need to know that somewhere all of their fingerprints are on the final reports and policy, no matter how light to the touch, not because it’s good or bad at this point, but simply because that’s the way it is in Washington, and to think otherwise is simply naïve or with all due respect to Ms. Tanden, simply beside the point.