With the new Biden administration and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, we hear many calls for “reform.”
Shouting that one word is easier than explaining to America just what’s baked into the cake they’re serving on everything from the Senate filibuster to H.R. 1, authored by my fellow Greek American, Rep. John Sarbanes, Maryland Democrat.
We’re not supposed to ask if shards of glass might be hiding into the 300 pages of H.R. 1, the For the People Act. “Reform” is one of those silver bullets in politics because, like Make America Great Again;” it means whatever the listener wants to hear.
What cretin would possibly stand against all the moral force packed into those six letters? The answer is Democrat Robert Anderson Van Wyck, who ran for mayor in 1897 on the slogan: “To Hell with Reform!” Backed by the corrupt Tammany Hall machine, Van Wyck bet that New Yorkers had tired of crusaders like former police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt.
Honesty was Roosevelt’s political handicap. Once, when campaigning for the state assembly, a saloonkeeper griped about the cost of his liquor license. Instead of winning the man’s support by promising to “reform” the fees, TR responded that he thought they should be higher.
Which brings us to that most infamous reform blunder: Prohibition. Park Avenue martinis flowed, but a beer on the Bowery was watery, overpriced and might leave you blind. Ten thousand Americans died from poisoned hooch thanks to the 18th Amendment. They certainly didn’t agree that any reform is good reform.
Roosevelt had little patience for those who used the word as a brickbat to cow opposition, saying they “were apt vociferously to demand ‘reform’ as if it were some concrete substance, like cake, which could be handed out at will in tangible masses — if only the demand were urgent enough.”
Another example of what Scott Adams calls a “rhetorical kill shot” is from 2011, when Chuck Schumer was caught on the Acela boasting, “I always use the word ‘extreme’” to describe the Republicans. Among the things he called extreme, by the way: Reforming (ahem) the Senate filibuster. His party felt the same about proposed changes to Georgia state election law, which Republicans, naturally, tout as “reform.”
Changing Senate rules, election laws or any provisions in H.R. 1 might have real merit, but history makes me cynical when I hear Mr. Sarbanes promise his bill will cure many ills, among them ending the influence of anonymous dark money in our elections. Recall the lesson about Trojan Horses: timeo Daneum donum estiam ferrentum. “I fear Greeks, even when bearing gifts.”
No doubt the Democrats wanted to end dark money when Republicans raised more. But in 2020, Team Biden had a 2-to-1 advantage in grubby greenbacks. Is the party that refused to “unilaterally disarm” when the GOP was slurping up cash like pigs at a trough really going to cut off the flow when they’re on the winning end of the slop bucket?
No politician is going to hobble donors and risk reelection. The target is always the little guys. We’re already seeing donors doxed for supporting certain candidates, and public flogging even from those like Michael Jordan, Chris Pratt and Gina Carano who seek to remain neutral. The NAACP has protected its donor list for a similar reason: They don’t want to put their lives at risk from White supremacists.
Dark money is a universally corrupting influence, but We the People do have a right to privacy on everything from a secret ballot to the Fourth Amendment. Not that the Federalist Papers themselves were authored anonymously, but H.R. 1 would throw Alexander Hamilton in jail if he didn’t make full disclosure — and that’s just one of the soldiers hiding inside that pretty wooden horsey at the gates of Troy.
The party in power is never going to limit dark money when they’re raising more than the other guys; if they were, they’d have minority party support for the bill. Imagine if Colonel Sanders introducing the For the Chickens Act, claiming it’ll stop those guys at McDonald’s from frying so many poor, delicious birds. Would you believe him?
Roosevelt saw through such posturing, saying that when these so-called reformers “believed their own interests — individually or as a class — were jeoparded, they were apt to show no higher standards than did the men they usually denounced.”
We certainly could use genuine reform on a great number of challenges, but we should expect our leaders to be transparent about what’s hidden under the icing. After all, ask any voter, “Would you like a piece of cake?” and we all reply with the same question: “What kind?”
• Dean Karayanis is content producer for “The Rush Limbaugh Show” and host of “History Author Show” on iHeartRadio.