Sunday, July 13, 2008



The top two died; the third is McCain's chief economics advisor

In the spring of 2002 Molly Ivins-- don't we miss her!-- wrote a hail and farewell column to "two of the meanest guys ever to serve in the U.S. Congress -- Senator Phil Gramm and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, both from Texas." We'll leave Armey out of this and if you've been reading DWT for the past couple of years you already know that time and distance from the Senate hasn't done anything to improve Phil Gramm as a human being. Today he is the economic and financial face of the John W. McCain campaign. A presidential candidate's chief economic advisor is always an important role, but in the case of McCain... well, as you know, McCain is disinterested in the economy beyond the bounds of whatever craps table he's playing at, admits not knowing much about it and promises to learn someday and hire "some smart people." Problem of, course, just as we thought the doltish and shallow Bush would hire some smart people-- ergo: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, Richard Perle, Michael Brown, Paul Wolfowitz-- we are assuming McCain's idea of "smart people" is something different from what he has already shown it to be-- Carly Fiorina and, worse, Phil Gramm in economics and Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, two Bush policy deadenders in foreign affairs. I guarantee you, Molly wouldn't have trusted McCain to pick a smart person if his life-- and ours-- depended on it (which, in a way, they do).

Molly starts her essay recalling one of Gramm's least endearing moments, when he proposed-- with a straight face and no sense of irony whatsoever-- denying "food stamps to elderly legal immigrants [think about your grandma and grandpa] on the splendid grounds that extending aid would only foster dependency, thereby inciting 'a new personal tragedy on the most vulnerable among us.'" Did you know the multimillionaire shady Swiss bank lobbyist/VP cared so deeply about the most vulnerable among us? Like Armey-- and for that matter, many Republicans-- Gramm built his political career "by opposing everything the government does to help people, constantly disparaging and attacking the institutional form of the people's power. Corporate welfare is fine with Gramm [which fits into his disgraceful revolving door career], just not anything to help people."

In the world of people who own their own jets, the recession really is just in the minds of whiners

Gramm has been in the news again lately, not because of the hogwash he feeds McCain and McCain dutifully repeats, but because he let his guard down long enough to blurt out that there is no recession except in people's minds and that Americans are a bunch of whiners. Although the McCain camp tried defending him at first, the response was so furious that it only took a few hours before McCain claimed that-- suddenly, since he always has-- Gramm doesn't speak for him. Let Molly take it from here, since everything she wrote in 2002 is as relevant today as it was then.
Phil Gramm is fond of posing as a picked-upon outsider whenever he screws up. But Gramm has done far more damage to the public interest-and his record of hypocrisy is remarkable, even by Washington standards. Gramm has always posed as a right-wing populist, looking out for the little guy against the terrible Washington politicians who are wasting the hardworking taxpayer's dollar: His Everyman was Dicky Flatt, a printer in Mexia, Texas, and Gramm's supposed lodestar has been, "What would Dicky do?" In fact, Gramm has been an assiduous servant of large corporate interests, routinely supporting legislation that screwed the Dicky Flatts of the world.

Gramm both looks like a snapping turtle and has the personality of one. When he ran for president in 1996 and finished fifth in Iowa, all the profiles written of him included the line "Even his friends don't like him." Self-righteous and strident, Gramm demonized his opponents and used bitter, polarizing rhetoric. During a Senate debate over Social Security, a member pointed out that the proposal under consideration would hurt 80-year-old retirees. "Most people don't have the luxury of living to be 80 years old," Gramm scoffed, "so it's hard for me to feel sorry for them." Well, there is that.

On another occasion, Gramm ridiculed a newspaper photo of poor people who were forced to cut corners to put food on the table. "Did you see the picture?" Gramm asked a crowd. "Here are these people who are skimping to avoid hunger and they are all fat!... We're the only nation in the world where all our poor people are fat." During the fight over health care reform, Gramm said, "We have to blow up this train and the rails and the trestle and kill everyone on board." When an elderly widow in Corsicana told him that cutting Medicare would make it more difficult for her to remain independent, Gramm said, "You haven't thought about a new husband, have you?"

When he first ran for Senate in 1984, Gramm's main attack ad focused on how his opponent, a young state senator, had received a check for $600 raised by a gay group at a male strip joint in San Antonio. He had not solicited the contribution and promptly returned it, but Gramm ran lurid ads about the gay strip show for months.

One has to wonder if Senator Larry Craig R-ID), Congressman Mark Foley (R-FL), Congressman David Dreier (R-CA), Karl Rove, Attorney General Troy King (R-AL), Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Congressman Ed Schrock (R-VA) were skulking around in the shadows hoping to sniff some discarded underpants.
Gramm, the great crusader against government spending, has spent his entire life on the government tit. He was born at a military hospital, raised on his father's Army pay, went to private school at Georgia Military Academy on military insurance after his father died, paid for his college tuition with same, got a National Defense Fellowship to graduate school, taught at a state-supported school, and made generous use of his Senate expense account. In 1987, a Dallas developer named Jerry Stiles flew a construction crew to Maryland to work on Gramm's summer home. Stiles spent $117,000 on the project but was kind enough to bill Gramm only $63,433. When Stiles got in trouble for misusing funds from a savings and loan he owned, Gramm did him some "routine" favors with regulators. Stiles was later convicted on 11 counts of conspiracy and bribery.

As a member of the Senate Finance Committee and the recipient of enormous banking contributions, Gramm did an even bigger favor for the financial industry in 1999 when he sponsored the Financial Services Modernization Act allowing banks, securities firms, and insurance companies to combine. The bill weakened the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to help meet the credit needs of low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Gramm described community groups that use the CRA as "protection rackets" that extort funds from the poor, powerless banks. The bill is also a disaster for the privacy of bank customers and weakens regulatory supervision. As Gramm proudly declared, "You're not going to find a single bank, insurance company, or securities company that will say they were hurt financially by this bill."

Instead Gramm's legislation and the onslaught of reactionary, anti-regulatory bills that Republicans and their Blue Dogs allies have pushed through since then have devastated the American middle class. Friday IndyMac Bank, once part of crooked mortgage lender Countrywide, and the largest OTS-regulated thrift ever to fail and the second largest financial institution to close in U.S. history, was taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Meanwhile Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are tottering and their crises certain presages higher interest rates, not something especially needed as part of the nadir of the of the Bush Economic Miracle.

Back to Gramm for a moment. After his Financial Services Modernization Act allowing banks, securities firms, and insurance companies to combine was passed, shady Swiss Bank UBS gobbled up --- and soon after hired made Phil Gramm a very, very wealthy man by giving him a job as a VP and lobbyist. His Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which led directly to the catastrophic Enron debacle, also padded the family budget since his wife, Wendy, was on the Enron Board of Directors. While he was working on these bills-- as Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee-- the Securities & Investment industry "donated" $1,000,914 to him.
To be fair, Gramm occasionally found it in his heart to assist the poor-- like the time he suggested that mothers on welfare would be better off working for $2.50 an hour. A more typical Gramm vote, though, came on an energy bill that benefited oil and gas companies at the expense of consumers. "There are winners and losers in every economic decision," Gramm said portentously. He was then getting more oil and gas money than any other member of the Senate.

Now John McCain is getting more oil and gas money than any other member of the Senate, $1,010,868 this year-- nearly as much as he's scooped up from commercial banks ($1,449,433) and insurance companies ($1,076,215).

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