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Politicians as Interchangeable Units

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Why did it take a comedian to demand answers about a blatant double standard embedded in Obamacare? On October 7, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was grilled mercilessly by Jon Stewart, who focused on why businesses can delay enrollment for a year but individuals cannot. Stewart speculated on the reason, saying, “Geez, it looks like because I don’t have a lobbying group.”

Stewart could have mentioned another double standard. Unlike regular people, who must obey the law, President Obama and Congress are effectively exempt from Obamacare; they are above the laws they pass. The politicians and their families receive a tax-paid, gold-plated health care plan.

The double standards within Obamacare have received little attention compared to the act’s disastrous roll out. For one thing, only comedians (not the mainstream media) seem to discuss the exemptions, all of which have been granted oh so quietly. And the politicians themselves have been unusually mute, especially about their own elite health care.

Why? One reason is that a glut of media coverage on the partisan schism between Democrats and Republicans has masked a more fundamental fact: both are part of the same class. They are both members of a ruling elite that uses the political means to feed on the productive class, which uses the economic means: it is the state versus society. Republican versus Democrat partisanship is an intraclass struggle and does not reflect a fundamental clash of goals.

Partisanship reflects a desire to monopolize the resources of power and privilege whenever they are scarce. Democrats and Republicans will fight, and bitterly so, whenever there can be only one winner, as in a Senate race or over a bill about which their constituents care passionately. They are akin to two criminal gangs who clash because they want to control the same territory and for the same reason: to live by power and privilege.

Nevertheless, their fundamental nature is identical, because they remain criminal. And they will band together against society whenever there is a shared class interest from which they can all benefit.

The saga of the insider-trading ban

A fine example of Republicans and Democrats banding together for a shared class interest from which they derive collective benefit is the recent repeal of the disclosure provision of the Congressional insider-trading ban.

On April 15, 2013, NYU Local reported on the news story. The article opened,

While Congress might be stuck in a deadlock on just about every issue imaginable, there’s one piece of legislation that both Democrats and Republicans hate unanimously: the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, a law passed last year designed to prevent insider trading among lawmakers and government officials.

The Act required any Congressperson, congressional aide, or federal employee who earned more than $119,554 a year to disclose their financial dealings in a searchable online database.

The STOCK Act was passed in 2012 in the wake of insider-trading scandals that rocked not merely Wall Street but also Congress. An exposé by CBS’s 60 Minutes on November 13, 2011, has been credited as the proximate cause of public furor. A segment of the show focused on several lucrative and suspiciously timed deals by various members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat. For example, in 2008, Nancy Pelosi purchased a large block of Visa stock around the period of its initial public offering; the stock rose dramatically within days. In that same month, the Credit Card Fair Fee Act, which Visa vigorously opposed, failed to make it to a vote on the floor of the House, where Pelosi then held the powerful position of House Speaker.

A public backlash, perhaps inspired by that CBS segment, drove a flood of members of Congress to cosponsor the STOCK Act in 2012 (which they had previously ignored for years).

Upon signing the STOCK Act into law, President Obama stated,

The idea that everybody plays by the same rules is one of our most cherished American values. It’s the notion that the powerful shouldn’t get to create one set of rules for themselves and another set of rules for everybody else, and if we expect that to apply to our biggest corporations and to our most successful citizens, it certainly should apply to our elected officials—especially at a time when there is a deficit of trust between this city and the rest of the country.

Then 2013 arrived, and Congress gutted the STOCK Act by removing the online-disclosure provision. Politicians who were deadlocked on almost everything else banded together. Both parties in both houses disliked the provision so much that they unanimously repealed it without debate. Official records indicate the process took about 10 seconds in the Senate and 14 seconds in the House. Obama signed the repeal bill almost immediately and issued a meager press release.

It was in the collective class interest of the political elite to hide any financial gains that might come from their “insider trading.” It was in their interest to do so quickly, quietly, and without media attention. They rewrote the rules that would apply to themselves, even though their actions would be criminal offenses if committed by anyone who isn’t a member of Congress.

Power corrupts

No one should be surprised by politicians who use power and access in order to enrich themselves in a way that would be criminal if done by the average person. Indeed, people should be surprised by politicians who do not. Historically, members of the political class have always indulged in a double standard that has been restrained only by their need for the public to believe it does not exist. One reason Patrick Henry stood up in 1788 to oppose ratification of the U.S. Constitution was because of his concern that the political power it authorized might corrupt men. He stated, “If our senators will not be corrupted it will be because they will be good men; and not because the Constitution provides against corruption, for there is no real check secured in it and the most abandoned and profligate acts may with impunity be committed by them.”

Many people are still blind to the fact that it doesn’t matter if a politician is Republican or Democrat; they are both part of the ruling class and equally tempted by crookedness. This is especially true of a Congress with little transparency or accountability and which explicitly passes laws that grant its members special privileges.

A proposal is underway in Congress that recognizes the double standard and attempts to push it back. Senate Joint Resolution 25 (S.J.Res. 25) is a “joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States relative to applying laws equally to the citizens of the United States and the Federal Government.” The President and Supreme Court Judges would be among those constituting “the Federal Government.” There would be one law for all men, powerful or humble. The resolution has been referred to committee.

The strength and the weakness of S.J.Res. 25 is its attempt to modify the Constitution. The strength: if successful, the measure would be extraordinarily difficult to repeal. The weakness: a Constitutional amendment is also extraordinarily difficult to pass. But, in the final analysis, the merits of S.J.Res. 25 do not matter, because Congress will never voluntarily surrender privilege. The double standard must be yanked away by an entirely different force in society: by average people who are not distracted by constant cries of partisanship — by people who know that the institution as a whole is now so corrupt that changing faces is not a solution but a continuation.

The entire political class needs to hear the only sound that will make them pause in place — the voice of the people crying “no.”

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).