Month: August 2016

How Your Government Works

George S LedyardThe recent flap over the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton State Department has created an appearance of influence peddling and pay per play government. The reality is that the uproar demonstrates that most Americans simply do not know how the government works.

In a country which is governed by laws and in which government regulations effect almost every area of economic life, a virtually constant need for rulings and decisions about how the laws and regulations apply exists. While so-called “normal” channels exist for getting the various permits, permissions, and decisions required to do business both domestically and internationally, to deal with immigration issues, foreign investment in US businesses, export of US technologies, and so on, it is also a constant effort on the part of businesses and individuals to get these decisions made as expeditiously as possible.

In every area of life, relationships are important and nowhere are relationships more important than in government. Every citizen has Congressmen and Senators in Congress that they elect to represent their interests. In theory, we all have the same access. But the reality is, and this has been true since the nation was founded, that the richest individuals and the most successful corporations go to the head of the line when they need access.

Your Senators and Congressmen spend a huge amount of their time helping their constituents navigate the maze of government regulation. They can contact an agency and help you make your case for a favorable decisions, they can contact another agency to find out the status of an immigration visa in process. Within certain ethical limits, they are there to represent the interests of their constituents. But it is a simple fact that big supporters of the party, companies that employ their constituents, even personal friends, will have “access” that ordinary people do not have.

This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, not a right / left issue, it is how things work and have always worked. One could certainly make a case for doing various things that would reduce the influence of wealth on our politics. We can make campaign finance reform a priority. We can repeal Citizens United and make the whole process more transparent. But nothing we will do will make relationships less of a central factor in getting anything done in our society.

clinton-foundationThe whole reason that Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation have come under fire has to do with the window into how relationships are formed and access is achieved in our society. The only difference between what happened during the Clinton years at the State Department and what has gone on in every administration, whether Republican or Democrat, is that the hacked emails let us see how the process works. We simply did not get the same kind of window on the relationships under under government officials.

The inference that foreign governments were making¬†donations to the Clinton Foundation in order to get access and favorable decisions at the State Department is backwards thinking. The kinds of people making large donations to an international charity are doing so BECAUSE they already have these relationships. After her years as First Lady, her years as a Senator, and then in her years as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who is famous for her ability as a “connector”, built a huge network of friends, colleagues, professional and government acquaintances. She is one of those people who seems to “know everyone”. So, many of these folks donated to the Clinton Foundation because they knew both Hillary and, obviously, the former President, Bill Clinton. In other words, these relationships existed BEFORE donations were made to the Foundation. These were all influential people, government figures, etc who could expect to have access without doing anything at all regarding the Foundation.

Influence peddling involves benefiting personally from using ones position in government to influence government decisions improperly on behalf of some person or entity. But this is and has always been a gray area. Is a big campaign donor or wealthy constituent having his or her representative go to bat on their behalf some sort of ethical issue? It might be, depending on how it’s done, but it might just be the elected representative taking care of a constituent. Now, if some benefit accrues directly to the government official from doing this,. it is clearly an ethical violation.

So, people need to be clear about the relationship of the Clinton Foundation to the Clintons themselves. The Foundation is a not for profit charity that operates world wide. Unlike a charity like the United Way, which collects donations and then dispenses them to other charities that are actually engaged on doing various projects, the Clinton Foundation does most of its work directly. So, when right wing critics try to say that most of its donations are not dispensed to other charities, it is precisely because it is doing its own charitable work.

As a not for profit charity, the IRS looks closely at the Foundation finances. The Clinton family does not financially benefit financially from the money donated to the Foundation. They do not have access to those funds. The Foundation is regularly audited to ensure that its funds are used primarily for the charitable purposes intended.

So, to the extent that people who donated to the Foundation had access to Hillary Clinton and her staff, it was the same kind of access that one would expect any wealthy contributor, influential leader, or even just a celebrity might have. This is how the government works. Influential people have more access than regular people. This is in no way shape or form unique to Hillary Clinton and it would be difficult to see how any system would exist in which this wouldn’t be true.

So far, in reviewing the meetings set up on behalf of the see figures by Clinton’s staff, there is ZERO evidence of improper pressure being applied to any of the decision makers involved. In most instances, meetings took place with no positive result for the person requesting the meeting. In those instances in which there might have been a positive result, it appears to have been an outcome that one would normally have expected.

So, to sum up. we have a suggestion of scandal that actually involves no direct benefit to the Clintons, demonstrates no improper pressure on officials to sway their decisions, which amounts to little more than using ones relationships to get a hearing from an agency empowered to make that decision. This is exactly what every Congressman, Senator, and other government official that represents the interests of the voters will do. The fact that wealthy elites, big corporations, leaders of other nations get more access than regular citizens is just a fact of life and is absolutely no different under any party, any administration. It was this way under the Bushes and it was this way under Bill Clinton or Obama. I won’t be different under a Clinton or a Trump Presidency.

The one thing that can be said with certainty, is that this is another non-scandal. The only reason that people think that Hillary Clinton has acted differently is that we didn’t get an inside view of any other official’s emails via some hacker.