GOP candidates kiss up to billionaire

April 4, 2014 

Who wants to marry a billionaire?

John Kasich does. So do Scott Walker, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush.

When Sheldon Adelson, the world’s eighth-richest person, according to Forbes, let it be known that he was looking for a Republican candidate to back in the 2016 presidential race, these four men rushed to Las Vegas over the weekend to see if they could arrange a quickie marriage in Sin City between their political ambitions and Adelson’s $39.9 billion fortune.

Adelson was hosting the Republican Jewish Coalition at his Venetian hotel and gambling complex, and the would-be candidates paraded themselves before the group, hoping to catch the 80-year-old casino mogul’s eye. Everybody knows that, behind closed doors, politicians often sell themselves to the highest bidder; this time, they were doing it in public, as if vending their wares at a live auction.

As The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker reported, Kasich, the Ohio governor, kept addressing his speech to “Sheldon,” as if he were having a private tete-a-tete with the mega-donor (Adelson and his wife spent more than $93 million on the 2012 elections) and not speaking to a roomful of people.

Walker, the Wisconsin governor, pandered unabashedly by giving the Hebrew meaning of his son Matthew’s name and by mentioning that he displays a menorah at home along with the Christmas tree. And Christie, the New Jersey governor, gushed about his trip to Israel and the “occupied territories.”

That was a gaffe. Pro-Israel hawks consider the term pejorative and, at any rate, the more relevant occupied territory at the moment is the Republican Party — wholly occupied by billionaires.

In addition to Adelson, two of the world’s other top-10 billionaires, David and Charles Koch (combined net worth: $81 billion) are pouring tens of millions into the 2014 midterm elections in an effort to swing the Senate to Republican control. These and other wealthy people, their political contributions unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, are buying the U.S. political system in much the same way Russian oligarchs have acquired theirs. (Super-rich liberals such as Tom Steyer are spending some of their fortunes to help Democrats, but they are pikers by comparison.) Spending by super PACs, a preferred vehicle of billionaires, will surpass spending by all candidates combined this year, predicts Kantar Media, which tracks political advertising.

This pay-to-play culture is, at best, unseemly. What makes it ugly is when it becomes obvious just how much the wealthy corporate interests get in return. As it happens, two such instances were on display Tuesday on Capitol Hill, as one congressional committee examined how Caterpillar Inc. avoided paying billions of dollars in taxes while another panel probed how General Motors was allowed to produce cars with a lethal safety defect for more than a decade.

A Senate panel examined how Caterpillar, using a tax loophole, shifted profits from the United States to its affiliate in Switzerland, where it negotiated a special tax rate, thus cutting its U.S. taxes by $2.4 billion. Julie Lagacy, the Caterpillar official at the hearing, was unapologetic. “I want to emphasize Caterpillar complies with the U.S. tax laws, and we pay everything we owe,” she testified.

That is just the problem — and the solution is a reform of the tax code. An attempt at reform this year by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., lacked support from corporate interests and was dismissed by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Defeated, Camp this week announced his retirement from Congress.

In the case of GM, the company knew about a problem in some of its ignition switches since at least 2001, but it didn’t do anything until this year, after at least 13 people had been killed.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee summoned GM’s chief executive, Mary Barra, to answer questions about the flaw, but it proved to be a frustrating exercise. Barra, though apologetic, has been in the job only two months, and she hid behind GM’s ongoing investigation to avoid answering various questions.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., appearing with the families of victims before the hearing, described how the auto industry used its political influence on three different occasions over the past decade to block regulations and statutes that would have forced GM to disclose information about safety problems earlier.

Now Markey is trying again to pass legislation that would help government regulators find problems and force recalls more quickly. But Markey has a distinct disadvantage getting it enacted. He isn’t doing a billionaire’s bidding.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

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