Some years ago, their book, Deceit and Denial, told how the chemical industry tried to conceal the truth about untested and unregulated chemicals in our food, water, and air. Twenty companies responded with a vicious campaign to smear their reputations. That proved hard to do, actually, impossible.
Gerald Markowitz is a distinguished professor of history at both John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. David Rosner is co-director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University where he also teaches science and history.
This is their new book, which revisits a chemical menace you might have thought was behind us, but isn’t: Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children.
BILL MOYERS: Gerald Markowitz, David Rosner, welcome.
DAVID ROSNER: Thank you.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Your book concludes that after all these years, lead is still a problem.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Absolutely. You know, in some ways the story of lead is a great success. We’ve reduced the amount of lead in children's blood and we've gotten lead out of gasoline and we've gotten lead out of paint. But there are still children who have too much lead in their blood. And it is endangering their life chances, endangering their futures.
BILL MOYERS: Does it kill?
DAVID ROSNER: It doesn't kill anymore. It used to send kids into convulsions, into comas and into paroxysms and ultimately killed them up until the 1980s. But we've gotten lead levels down to the point where we're now discovering new, even in some sense, more troubling problems.
BILL MOYERS: What's the most important thing you've discovered about lead since we last talked?
DAVID ROSNER: Well, that in what we would once have considered miniscule amounts lead in children can cause neurological damage, causes behavioral problems, attention deficit disorders, dyslexia. Studies show that children who are exposed in utero can have permanent neurological changes that put them at risk later in life for learning disabilities that lead to failure in school and IQ loss. There are a whole series of problems that we never even thought about in the old days, so to speak.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: It's shocking that we know that children can be prevented from any kind of lead poisoning if they are, live in a home that is lead free. And this is no longer, you know, a priority of the country. We still have many homes millions of homes that contain lead that are endangering our children.
BILL MOYERS: Is it the cost of getting rid of the lead from homes that are already established and we're living in, is that the main barrier?
DAVID ROSNER: For some it is. But the history of public health, and that's what we are, historians, is rife with examples of decisions that are very costly that we decided are necessary for the population as a whole.
But somehow because we have in some sense accepted a definition of what the problem is and who the victims are and we've devalued their lives, we decided not to address this issue because it's quote, “too costly.”
GERALD MARKOWITZ: We really made a morally bankrupt calculation that it is less costly to endanger the health and futures of our children rather than to protect them by paying to remove lead from their homes.
DAVID ROSNER: The message really should be is we need to really think of lead as one symbol, one symptom of this much larger problem of the pollution of our children, pollution of their lives, the pollution of all of us from a whole host of toxic materials that we are, we've grown accustomed to using and tend to put out of our consciousness.
BILL MOYERS: When I first met you, people were saying, scientists were saying, that the smaller the dose of lead, the exposure to lead, the safer it would be.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Scientists now say that it is very likely there is no safe level of lead, that any amount of lead in a child's body, in a child's blood, you know, causes a variety of neurological and intellectual problems. So this is really a sea-change in our understanding of what, the amount of a toxin that causes a problem for children.
DAVID ROSNER: We no longer have children convulsing and going into comas. In other parts of the world they still are from lead exposures. In Africa, in Nigeria, children still are exposed to huge amounts of lead from a variety of sources. And a recent article indicates that we're still selling lead paint, for example, to other countries despite the fact that we in this country no longer use it on our walls. But if you look at where lead poisoning is most prevalent, when you look at the communities that are most affected by lead they're usually communities, poor communities, working class communities, parts of the cities that are more run down because the lead that is dangerous is the lead that comes off of walls of old buildings. And walls of old buildings that are not maintained give off more lead than walls of old buildings that have been recently renovated. It's hard to believe how much lead there is in an old home. I mean, we often think of paint as just a lot of liquid with a little bit of color. But in fact, when you looked at lead paint and you lifted it in your grandfather's garage or, you know, my grandfather's garage, it was very, very heavy. And that's because about, in that can of paint there was 15 pounds of lead. And that was being painted on walls, three coats on each wall, every five to ten years, whatever the renovation took. We were putting literally hundreds and hundreds of pounds of lead, a deadly toxin at that point, that a small fingernail's worth could actually cause convulsions, into the children's environment.
BILL MOYERS: Well, there were ads actually promoting lead paint as the right paint for your home.
DAVID ROSNER: They said that lead paint was a friend of the child and that it could be spread on any surface and it could be fun to do. And they showed these ads in which children are painting their toys, painting their cabinets, painting their walls, painting their furniture with a poison. At the same time when all these cases are appearing in the medical press about lead poisoned children, at the same time when in their own internal documents they're saying, we have these examples, we have, we're being attacked because children and babies are getting poisoned by lead on their cribs.
And so you see this kind of progression of this problem from the 1930s when it once killed children and sent them into comas straight through the early 2000s and now when the CDC says there are a half million children, I mean half million children at risk, a half million children with elevated blood lead levels. This would be a national epidemic, I mean, if this were meningitis, if this were polio. I mean, could you imagine the reaction of the society?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: And the industry said over 50 years ago that this was an insoluble problem, it was a problem of, caused by slums, it was a problem caused by who they called uneducable parents. And so that they washed their hands of the problem and they have still washed their hands of the problem. Parents have played, excuse me, paid the cost of lead poisoning. Landlords have even paid the cost of lead poisoning. The government has paid the cost of lead poisoning. The industry has not paid to get that lead off the walls so future generations of children can be protected.
BILL MOYERS: What your critics say is, look, it's like gasoline in cars. We didn't intend harmful effects to come from a product that was fueling America's economy. We found out later and we're trying to cut back on emissions.
This applies as well to lead and other toxins in our environment. Nobody intended it, it proved to be a consequence of, as even you say in here, the enormous amount of material we've taken out of the earth and turned into the engine of our prosperity.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Well, unfortunately they didn't give them the information about the dangers of lead that they had. They knew that lead was killing children in the 1930s. They knew that researchers were uncovering lead and they were fighting those, the diagnoses of lead poisoning in children. They, even into the 1970s and '80s, they went after researchers like Herbert Needleman who were uncovering the low levels of lead that were damaging children. They were not innocent purveyors of a product. They were actively involved in the political dialog attempting to increase their profits at the expense of public health.
BILL MOYERS: I interviewed Herbert Needleman some years ago for a documentary on Kids and Chemicals. Let's take a look.
BILL MOYERS in Kids and Chemicals: In the late 1970s Dr. Needleman studied the baby teeth of healthy schoolchildren in two Boston suburbs […]
DR. HERBERT NEEDLEMAN in Kids and Chemicals: When we looked at the data, we found that children who had high lead in their teeth, but who had never been identified as having any problems with lead, had lower IQ scores, poorer language function, and poorer attention.
BILL MOYERS in Kids and Chemicals: It was a stunning discovery, and no one knew it better than the lead industry. Leaded gasoline was the single greatest source of lead exposure, and as a result of Needleman’s work the Environmental Protection Agency sped up efforts to ban it. The lead industry fought back, denying Needleman’s science.
JEROME COLE in Kids and Chemicals: Lead has been used in gasoline for over 60 years. There’s simply no evidence that anyone in the general public has ever been harmed by this usage […]
DR. PHILIP LANDRIGAN in Kids and Chemicals: The lead industry attacked it viciously and they attacked Dr. Needleman himself. They accused him of scientific misconduct and they actually filed charges against him at his university and at the National Institutes of Health.
DR. HERBERT NEEDLEMAN in Kids and Chemicals: It’s like a death sentence. If you’re found guilty of scientific misconduct you’re out of business; your reputation is ruined; you’re through.[…]
BILL MOYERS in Kids and Chemicals: The assault went on for three years. For three years, Dr. Needleman stood his ground.
DR. PHILIP LANDRIGAN in Kids and Chemicals: Those were tough years in Dr. Needleman’s life. Eventually those charges were shown to be baseless and the people that brought them forward who had portrayed themselves as neutral scientists were, in fact, revealed as consultants to the lead industry. It took several years for the truth to out. But he triumphed.
DR. HERBERT NEEDLEMAN in Kids and Chemicals: I knew I was right. I mean, I knew that the work was good. I knew that my colleagues who worked with me on it were honest people. But I realized that science is not always the polite intellectual activity that it appears to be; that environmental science sometimes becomes something closer to warfare.
BILL MOYERS: So that's why you called this Lead Wars, I assume?
DAVID ROSNER: That's right.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Yes.
DAVID ROSNER: That's where the title comes from. This is one of the, you know, tactics of this industry, of these industries to essentially control the regulators, to find ways of both undermining, in Herb Needleman's case, the integrity or the scientific integrity of the researcher by trying to attack his personality or his research, his data, but also trying to find ways of getting the regulatory agencies in government to see anyone who in any way cast doubt on their product as biased as opposed to a neutral observer. But it wasn't only lead. The more industries we look at, the more like other industries the lead story is.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
DAVID ROSNER: Well, you look at the asbestos story. Our homes are still, you know, covered with asbestos. It's on, in old homes, it's on the shingles that, you know, we use, it's in the floor coverings that, the vinyl that we use, it’s on the roofs. It's on our boil, older boilers still, but when you look at the history of asbestos the knowledge about that product goes back literally decades and decades and decades.
Then you look at the silica industry, the, when you look at the vinyl chloride industry, when you look at the PCB story. And the same unfortunate, the same unfolding of, what can you say but corporate greed.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: And in addition to the corporate greed there is their war on science. The attacks on global warming. There is a war on bisphenol A, which is in a wide variety of products, it is virtually in every human being in the United States--
BILL MOYERS: What is it?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: It is basically an ingredient in plastic that is in the linings of cans, it's even in receipts that we get every day from a clerk at a store, the credit card receipt. And we take that and that has bisphenol A on it. And we end up absorbing that.
There's been a tremendous amount of research that shows that it is an endocrine disruptor, that it causes a disruption of the endocrine system that can affect reproduction, that can affect development of the fetus. But it's also a carcinogen. And so this is a real problem that the industry has been fighting to cast doubt on really amazing science that has been done by a wide variety of people.
BILL MOYERS: Just this April California's Environmental Protection Agency put it on its toxins list. The American Chemistry Council is suing California to keep this off of that list of dangerous substances.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: And they are supporting research that, as David said creates doubt about the independent scientists who are finding these variety of subtle and not so subtle effects. And they are determined, as they did, as we talked about in tobacco, in global warming, in lead, in asbestos, to make people not be convinced. And if they're not convinced, if they have a question in their mind, then they can continue to sell their chemical.
BILL MOYERS: You two have been yourselves the subject of harassment, legal suits, attacks, efforts to discredit you, right?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Absolutely.
DAVID ROSNER: There was an article in a legal journal that kind of warned us about what was going to happen. It talked about the title of our book--
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Which was Deadly Dust.
DAVID ROSNER: --which was called Deadly Dust. And it said, you know, we could let Rosner and Markowitz play by themselves in their own little play yard of historians, but they, their book has appeared in lawsuits against the industry. And it has become the dominant narrative or it's becoming the dominant narrative of how silicosis is understood. Therefore we have to do something about them. They didn't quite say it in those words, but that was the implication.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Well, they said, you know, be an academic and talk only to academics. But when you talk to the public that's dangerous.
DAVID ROSNER: And then very shortly afterwards we found Deceit and Denial, the next book we did came under enormous attack. They actually subpoenaed the press, they subpoenaed the foundation that supported us, the Milbank Foundation.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: They subpoenaed the peer reviewers of the book for a university press.
DAVID ROSNER: And then they hired a historian to call us unethical, lousy historians, to attack minor footnotes in the book that weren't wrong, but he claimed were wrong. It was quite an attack. And I think the biggest thing they do, though, is try to introduce doubt. One of the issues that they constantly are raising is you don't have definitive, you don't have definitive proof that in 60 years, for example, children might develop cancer from exposure to bisphenol A, right. You don't have the long term studies that we think are really essential.
But you introduce doubt about the data and then you find other people to introduce studies that raise questions about it. So you introduce, it's really the production of uncertainty. Produce uncertainty about the issue and we as an industry have no obligation to prevent disease. And it's completely antithetical to everything that public health could, public health's supposed to be about preventing disease and you always work on imperfect data. You never have the long term 60-year study that tells you you're going to have damage 60 years from now. So that's one of the tactics, it's just to keep saying there's a question, there's a question.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: And to attack people like Herbert Needleman, and to create the kind of uncertainty that gives parents pause. Should I act or should I not act? And that is probably the, as David says, the most dangerous thing they do.
BILL MOYERS: But it's consistent with what you have learned as historians this industry and others have done over the years to whistleblowers, to truth tellers, to neutral scientists and journalists who are just simply trying to report what the public should know.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: But if you can't contest the message then you go after the messenger. But think about all the younger academics who are deciding what they're going to study, what they're going to work on. And for those people it is a real decision. Are they going to go up against powerful industries or are they going to do something safe? And our fear is that more and more younger scholars and younger scientists will end up doing something safe rather than something that could really make a difference in the public arena.
BILL MOYERS: Both of you were witnesses in that big case in Rhode Island. Can you summarize that and what happened?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Well, this was the longest civil trial in Rhode Island history, or at least up to that point. And it was a remarkable effort by the attorney general of the state of Rhode Island to prevent future damages for lead’s harm to the children of Rhode Island. It was really a public health lawsuit, an amazing public health lawsuit.
BILL MOYERS: As I understand it Senator Whitehouse whom I have met had this problem before he was a senator. He had inadvertently exposed his own children to lead when he renovated his house. And then he became attorney general and brought this suit to try to hold the industry accountable.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: It took, unfortunately, his personal tragedy to get him to take this extraordinarily important action. And we were asked to testify in that case to provide the historical evidence of what the lead industry knew about the dangers and what did they do with that knowledge, which basically was to deny that there was a problem, to say that this was a public relations problem for them rather than a public health problem.
Our documents showed that they had been, they'd known about what they were creating, they'd known that children would be poisoned, they were discussing children dying as early as the 1920s and '30s, and yet they had created this huge environmental mess of millions and millions of pounds on the walls of Rhode Island, all of which was waiting to poison future generations.
DAVID ROSNER: And that they had done nothing about it, they continued to market. And that really, I think, enraged the jury.
GERALD MARKOWITZ And we were thrilled, just thrilled when at the end of this trial the jury came back and for the first time in lead industry lawsuits they held three lead companies responsible for cleaning up the mess, in the form of lead paint on the walls of houses throughout Rhode Island.
BILL MOYERS: So the jury said the industry has to clean up and pay for it?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: For the first time?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: First time.
DAVID ROSNER: This was the high point of our professional careers, the idea that we could use history and we could use the legal system really prevent disease for the future, not just pay back for the damages already done that were irreversible to children, but to actually prevent future generations. This was a suit that actually was going to demand somewhere between $1 billion and $4 billion from the companies to clean up the mess they had created. The low point of our lives, our professional lives, came two years later when the Supreme Court in Rhode Island overturned the decision.
BILL MOYERS: And what was the basis for them taking it back?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Basically, they said that the lawsuit was filed under the wrong law, that it was filed under public nuisance law rather than under liability law.
DAVID ROSNER: What's interesting now is that there's another suit coming up in California. And there was fear that the California suit would not go forward because they thought the precedent of the Rhode Island Supreme Court denying the legitimacy of the suit would undermine that case. The Court in California rejected the arguments of the Supreme Court in Rhode Island. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island had said this can't go under, there is no standing in future generations to get damages from these companies because they haven't been damaged yet. Until the kids are damaged you can't actually sue. And California has said that absolutely, public health law is all based upon preventing disease. All regulations are in order to prevent future damage, therefore it can go forward in California. So we're quite excited because in June this court is, this case is going to be heard by a California jury.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about the Baltimore case that you write about.
DAVID ROSNER: In the 1980s, researchers at Hopkins wanted to find a way of remedying the conditions of Baltimore's housing, which lead was all over the place. And they were trying to find a way of doing it cheaply. So what they did is they set up three kinds of housing, one of which has been renovated to $1,650 worth of renovation, another to $3,500 and the last to $7,000 worth of renovation.
And then they recruited mothers, young mothers with children between the ages of six months to five years to live in these different houses, knowing that each house had lead exposures, but that if they could find which was the cheapest and which was the most effective way of lowering the blood lead level, not actually eliminating lead but lowering it a little bit.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: And perhaps the most troubling part of the experiment was that we've seen the consent forms and the consent forms do not tell parents that living in these homes may cause their children to be lead poisoned.
And as a result they ended up exposing 100 kids to less than fully abated homes expecting that most of those blood lead levels of those children would go down. And in fact, for most of the children their blood lead levels did go down. But some of the children, their blood lead levels went up.
DAVID ROSNER: What the court says is they were using children as human guinea pigs, as canaries in the mine so to speak, they were using them to measure the effectiveness of each one of their methods of abating lead. You know, this is young women, single mothers by and large with children, young children. And--
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Overwhelmingly African American.
DAVID ROSNER: And this is the, one of the most prestigious medical institutions in the country, Johns Hopkins.
BILL MOYERS: Weren't they trying to figure out how little could be spent to protect children in the short term? And wasn't that the wrong question altogether, don’t we need to solve these problem for the long run?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Absolutely. And the lead researchers understood that the only way to solve the problem of lead poisoning in children was to get rid of all the lead from the walls. But they didn't think that there would be the political will to do that.
BILL MOYERS: Why don't we have that political will?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Basically the industry has bought that political system.
DAVID ROSNER: For the past 40 years really we've been living under this set of assumptions about the scarcity in our society, how we can't afford anything and how government can't do anything. Government is the problem, not the answer. That's diametrically opposed to virtually all principles of course of public health which sees government as something that really could do something good. And but we've been taught over and over again that it's too expensive and government is the problem. And therefore we're incapacitated.
BILL MOYERS: With millions, billions of dollars at stake in profits aren't they following a kind of logic of capitalism?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: They absolutely are following the logic of capitalism. But we are all research subjects in a grand experiment where we are being exposed to literally thousands of chemicals that we have no data about. And do we want to know in ten, 20, 30 years that these are going to be either making us gravely ill or killing us?
Do we want our grandchildren to be exposed to this toxic soup of chemicals and only to find out when they're in their 30s and 40s that this is endangering their lives? And there really is a way that we can handle that problem. There is legislation in Congress now, the “Safe Chemicals Act,” which would require the EPA to test all existing and, existing chemicals and the 700 chemicals that are introduced every year and to not allow those that are dangerous to continue.
BILL MOYERS: But Jerry, you know that, as you write in here about the politics of science, that the industry went to Congress in 2005 and got fracking, even before it had come to full blossom, got fracking exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act. And you think, and you have hope for any kind of legislation such as you just described?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Well, I have hope that there were actually 29 senators who were willing to cosponsor this piece of legislation, but no, I don't have hope that it's going to pass. I think only if environmental groups all around the country, and there are hundreds of environmental groups around the country, really mobilize a mass movement to demand that Congress protect our health, we really care about our health, but we are not doing the political mobilizing that is necessary in order to put that caring about health into legislative action.
BILL MOYERS: So how is the politics of science affecting the fate of America's children?
GERALD MARKOWITZ: You know, in our lifetime we have seen the abandonment of the commitment to try to help those who are most vulnerable in our society. And instead of that commitment today we ask how much does it cost. And by that we mean how many dollars does it cost. We don't ask what does it cost in terms of the health of our children, what does it cost in terms of the futures of our children and of our society.
BILL MOYERS: The book is “Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children”. Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, thank you for being with me and thank you for what you do.
DAVID ROSNER: Thank you so much Bill.
GERALD MARKOWITZ: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: So what does it say about the state of democracy when public health is sacrificed to private profits because our political system has been bought out from under us? No two people are better qualified to answer that question than my next guests.
Sheila Krumholz heads the Center for Responsive Politics, based in Washington. That’s an organization of investigators tracking money in politics and its impact on elections and public policy. The center and its website, OpenSecrets.org, are invaluable resources for journalists and anyone who cares about campaign finance and the clout of Washington lobbyists.
Danielle Brian runs the Project on Government Oversight, otherwise known as POGO. Its mission: is transparency and accountability throughout the federal government. Its weapons: whistleblowers and a thorough knowledge of the Freedom of Information Act, exposing abuse, demanding answers, and looking for solutions.
Welcome to you both.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Thank you.
DANIELLE BRIAN: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: We just heard Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner describe how the lead industry buys the outcomes it wants in Washington. Now, the two of you have collectively been at this work of public watchdogs for more than 40 years.
What have you learned in all that time about how money works?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Money buys outcomes. It’s not that money is given as a quid pro quo to purchase a vote. But, well-placed contribution, money spent on lobbying, well-placed former aids now working to lobby are all assets that can be used by private interests to influence policy.
BILL MOYERS: Sheila, you came to the Center for Responsive Politics almost 25 years ago, 1989. How do you compare the amount of money in politics then to now?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Every cycle, cycle after cycle, the money climbs inexorably up. So it has more than tripled in just the last decade in terms of all told -- money going to candidates, political action committees and parties, and also the lobbying and now this secret dark money which is going to newly energized, newly formed political nonprofits that are actively trying to shape electoral outcomes.
BILL MOYERS: Hasn’t the buying of influence in Washington become so routine it’s now the norm?
DANIELLE BRIAN: Oh, there’s no question that it’s become the norm. And part of the problem with that is that people are less and less outraged. They get sort of used to it, journalists as well. And so I do think that what Sheila's pointing to in addition to the campaign contributions and lobbying, which people think of when they think of money affecting government, it is also that revolving door that goes on where jobs, where people are leaving the federal government either from the Congress or the agencies and going to the industries that they had been overseeing or vice versa where they are leaving those industries and coming into the federal government.
These are the kinds of things that are really affecting policies. And then you have those same lobbyists who are dealing with legislation who are in the agency level who are also affecting how rulemakings, which is really some of the details that matter most.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean rulemaking?
DANIELLE BRIAN: So when a law is passed you then have to get down to the details, or the agency has to figure out exactly what the rules will be that implement that law. So that is one way that rulemakings are established. Sometimes an agency will just establish what new regulations will be without legislation. And either way, those same lobbyists are dealing at the agency level to make sure that their interests are protected.
BILL MOYERS: The cliché is that you have to pay to play. What does that mean to the two of you?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: It means that organizations and mostly we’re talking about corporations, understand that Washington is often standing in the way of bigger profits for them. And so they see this as a perfectly legal, entirely common way for their companies to shape policy legislation, even regulation coming out of Washington that will ameliorate the damage and ultimately enhance their ability to turn a profit.
And so private interests if they are not successful in achieving their legislative agenda in Congress have other opportunities, many bites at the apple, to try to water down regulations that they see as onerous or to otherwise tweak laws as they are actually being implemented by the agencies.
Look at this headline: “After Aa Powerful Lobbyist Intervenes, EPA Reverses Stance on Polluting Texas County's Water.” That's a story from the news organizations ProPublica reporting that a big energy company wants permission from Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, for a large-scale mining project in Texas that would pollute a pristine supply of drinking water.
So the EPA says no, can't have it. The big company hires Heather Podesta who's a big time lobbyist, a big time fundraiser for Democrats who was married at the time to another big Washington Democratic fixer named Tony Podesta, who used to be president of the liberal organization People for the American Way.
Through their connections these two have become the king and queen of influence peddling. Lo and behold, some months after the industry hires Heather Podesta, EPA reverses itself and the company gets an exemption and is allowed to pollute the aquifer. To hell with the public health. This is routine, isn't it?
DANIELLE BRIAN: And it's exactly what you're talking about with the pay to play. So it's, in this case you have companies that have the money and the resources to hire the lobbyists or the lawyers who will go to battle for their clients endlessly. I mean, those of us who are working on the other side in the public interest realize that when we have our wins which we get industry is going to be there and they're going to keep going and fighting because they have those endless resources to keep battling back.
It's the question of who is paying those influencers, who is behind that which is often not transparent and part of what we really think is essential is to make these communications even at the agency level. For example, if we could get visitors logs, many of the agencies track electronically if we're going to visit an agency you're listed. Those logs are not public. If we could get a better sense of, who are these people who are coming through the door to meet with the people for example at the EPA, we would have a better sense of what was going on.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: And that's especially important because we do know that there are over 12,000 registered lobbyists advocating on behalf of their clients in Washington. And we can see who they are, whether they've already spun through revolving door coming from Capitol Hill or elsewhere in government to advocate on behalf of these paying clients and how much they're being paid. But we also need to see those senior advisors, others who are not technically registered as lobbyists but are in fact doing much the same work, advocating on behalf of a paying private client.
BILL MOYERS: Is it even possible to track how a Heather Podesta would do her work for that company, which Congress people she sees, who she talk might talk to if she did at the White House or within the administration?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Unfortunately the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which governs disclosure of lobbying activity does not mandate that lobbyists disclose whom they're meeting with. So they only say, "We lobbied the House of Representatives, or we lobbied the Senate," which is ridiculous. That doesn't provide us with a roadmap to exactly who their targets are in Congress
DANIELLE BRIAN: But there's an example, well, that did work with the Recovery Act, where they actually did increase for that one time the disclosure of these contacts and it was, and it worked. So we know that there are models where you can have the disclosure of who is meeting with the federal agencies. And that is an essential tool for people like the Center for Responsive Politics to have.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: And it's an essentially tool for the public because there are people who are active in their locale and interested in specific fights, maybe at the federal level but governing business or development in their state. And if they want to know what they're up against they can only see part of the information. They need to get the full picture to be able to connect the dots and to be able to adequately contest what the money is buying private clients in Washington.
BILL MOYERS: The EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, says that that did not influence their decision to grant the exemption to the energy company. But as a journalist I have to say “verify,” right?
DANIELLE BRIAN: Yeah, and how can they say that when their position had been that this should not have gone through, right, until Podesta was hired. So I'd like to understand why they changed their mind.
BILL MOYERS: Look at this headline from The Nation magazine. “The Reverse Revolving Door: How Corporate Insiders Are Rewarded Upon Leaving Firms for Congress.” In this article Lee Fang reports on how corporations and lobbying firms award six figure bonuses to staff who leave to take powerful positions in government.
For example Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, got an exit package worth over $1 million from Citigroup shortly before he joined the Obama administration. The contract from Citigroup made explicitly clear that his bonus was contingent, and I'm quoting, "on his securing a ‘full time high level position with the US government or regulatory body.’" Make sense of that for me.
DANIELLE BRIAN: It's really I think the revolving door is maybe the most important corrupting element of in Washington because of-- you have what we call, in this case that's a reverse revolving door, right. But either way what you've got is people who are coming to the government or to be in public service with an incentive coming from their prior employer in this case.
You know, you're not forgetting your friends who just gave you a multibillion or a multimillion dollar deal. Or you have people who are in the public service who are anticipating their next step, you know, their public service is essentially a stepping stone in their résumé to make more money. I don't want that kind of person in my government. I would rather see that we have policies that really slow down the assumption that the reason you're in government is to help go make money for yourself and for your next business afterwards.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: It's also damaging because it used to be, I think, that one could aspire to be a senior congressional advisor and that would be the pinnacle of your career, that would be a real achievement. Now young staffers are looking to trade on their investment in public service to leave work on Capitol Hill to go work on K Street for much more lucrative jobs very quickly. They're not investing that time in public service. So I think that has had a damaging effect and means that the lobbyists are the ones that have the expertise. We're losing expertise that's not being developed on Congress, on Capitol Hill, it's the seat of that is in some cases in K Street.
BILL MOYERS: Which brings me to another headline. “Wall Street Hiring More Ex-Government Prostitutes” this column says, but then it crosses it out—it says “Officials to Assure it Gets its Way.” That's actually based on a story from Politico whose headline is “Wall Street Hires Washington.”
And the headline I mean, the story is that these big banks, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, JPMorgan Chase, are paying these government and political officials big bucks to come to work for them so that they can influence the very agencies and politicians they once worked for. That's an old practice, isn't it?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: The financial industry is the largest source of campaign cash and money on lobbying for many years in Washington. That changed during the healthcare debate, during the debate of Obamacare and the health industry, especially pharmaceutical and insurance companies, became the biggest spenders on lobbying during that period. So you see how it shifts as legislation comes and goes. They're, you know, the money follows power and influence. They're, so this is, I think evidence of that.
DANIELLE BRIAN: But there's, you know, the people who are working for example at the SEC, at the Securities and Exchange Commission are quite handsomely paid. They are not on the civil service schedule. So it's important when some people say, "Well, how could you ask someone not to take, you know to be underpaid for the rest of their lives when they could make so much more money on Wall Street." In fact they're actually quite well paid in order to keep try to keep people in the public service.
And frankly for many decades being in public service as a lifetime career as Sheila's talking about was considered a very honorable profession. And I think that is the kind of thing we need to try to work back to is seeing this as the end in itself. Being in public service is a great thing.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: I think that is a large part of the cynicism that's developed around government. People don't see it as an honorable profession because the money is playing such an important role. Across the board from left to right people, Americans believe that government has been purchased, that it's been corrupted by the money.
And I think in specific cases you know, the headlines day after day show elements of that where someone leaves Congress to go lobby for a special interest that gets a sweetheart deal stuck into a big omnibus spending bill and no you know, none's the wiser until it's too late. That happens time and again and it's been happening for so long. And it happens it's important to note it happens with Democrats and Republicans, nobody's pure in this.
BILL MOYERS: Here's another headline. “What Does Millions in Lobbying Money Buy? Five Congresspeople in the Pocket of the Private Prison Industry.” Reporting on how the for-profit prison industry uses its money to influence politicians to send more people to jail because that’s the way the industry makes more money.
DANIELLE BRIAN: You know what I found really shocking about the private prison industry is that recently you know, POGO tracks the top government contractors and their misconduct because the government hasn't until recently actually done that which is shocking in itself. But only in the last couple of years suddenly two of the top government contractors are private prison corporations. That was pretty shocking to me.
And this is happening at a time where we see that there's all kinds of legislation that is moving in Congress, that is criminalizing at a federal level, especially when it comes to immigration. We are very fascinated by that nexus. And I think it's really terrifying. It raises the point that we haven't touched on yet in terms of money in policy which is how much of what used to be done conducted by the federal government, by federal employees has been privatized to government contractors.
And that's a whole separate way that money is influencing policy where entire agencies are essentially relying on employees that are private sector employees with private sector interests. And they are in many cases really pushing the agenda of those agencies.
BILL MOYERS: Here's my last headline, it's from Common Dreams. “Tax Rates Down, Havens Thriving: Corporations Win, Workers Pay.”
And the sub headline is, “Despite tough talk corporations receiving increasingly friendly treatment from governments as working people carry the burden.” The point to me is how do everyday citizens stand up against this overpowering interlocking grip that money has on our government?
DANIELLE BRIAN: Well, people need to see it, but then they need to do something about it. And I think that the most important thing for people to remember is that they can do something about it, it is I worry that people become despondent and walk away from government.
BILL MOYERS: Cynical, I can tell you the cynicism is oceans deep.
DANIELLE BRIAN: Yeah, I think that's our biggest danger. Because in the end as we've talked about how industries will have endless lawyers and money to pursue lobbying. But they don't have the numbers of people. Our side has the numbers of people. And if we can just remind people that getting engaged still is what's going to put pressure on the public figures who don't want to be embarrassed. Media matters. Bad press matters. Going to town halls and having people yell at you for doing something corrupt matters. And that's what we need to remember to empower people to take action.
BILL MOYERS: Okay, I'm engaged. What do I do now?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: There are organizations like ours which are both credible, offering credible information, non-partisan information through which you can be informed and servicing opportunities to get involved, to take action on specific issues that are happening now--
DANIELLE BRIAN: That's--
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: --so--
DANIELLE BRIAN: --I think that's the key is those specific moments of time where it really will matter. And so we have at our website, at pogo.org we have a signup list for people who are joining what we're calling our good government army of people who really-- are willing to join us in being nerdy sometimes and saying “okay, now is the time.” And we get not just the one person, but the one person times 10,000 making a point, the people in that agency will say, "Wow, I didn't know anyone other than Heather Podesta was looking."
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: And whether it's agency staff or whether it's members of Congress, they're not going to risk the liability of being seen as allied with the moneyed interests against the public interests, particularly for elected officials. They know what side their bread is buttered on and it's the voters who hold, kind of the cards here. We need to make sure that they understand that we are paying attention. Because it's those secret deals that are most powerful. When we can expose the money and the players we help neutralize their impact.
BILL MOYERS: We know why the Heather Podesta’s of Washington do what they do. They get well paid for it. Why do you two keep doing what you're doing?
DANIELLE BRIAN: Well, one reason is when we have our victories. And those are really fantastically exciting and--
BILL MOYERS: Which one are you most excited about right now?
DANIELLE BRIAN: Right now I'm very excited that we got the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act passed. It's hard to get--
BILL MOYERS: Which means?
DANIELLE BRIAN: --legislation passed.
BILL MOYERS: Which means what does that act do?
DANIELLE BRIAN: What it's doing is helping federal employees finally have genuine protections when they raise dissent inside their agency of waste or fraud. They're now going to have state of the art protections. It has been a law that has been whittled down by hostile courts to be almost meaningless.
That's going to help all of society. This is not just an altruism for those federal employees. That means people in the agencies who are trying to do the right thing (and agencies are full of people trying to do the right thing), are going be more comfortable in raising their concerns. That's a big deal.
BILL MOYERS: You push data. And how do you win victories with data?
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: We win by making sure that our data is accurate, unassailable, absolutely unbiased so that people know they can trust it as a source of information about how many really influences politics and policy. And by doing that we're not just informing the voters, we're helping the press do a better job of covering complex issues.
Money in politics at the federal level alone, to say nothing of the state and local level where it's also influential, is complicated. And so our-- we feel good about making it intelligible to the average American. Because it's so important that they understand how this really works and in some cases what they're up against
BILL MOYERS: So as we close tell my viewers, our viewers how they reach the Center for Responsive Politics.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Go to OpenSecrets.org, sign up for our weekly newsletter and pay attention to our opportunities to take action.
BILL MOYERS: And how do people reach POGO?
DANIELLE BRIAN: At pogo.org is our website and we're also on Facebook and Twitter which I know CRP is also. And so there are various ways of social media people can find us. But pogo.org is the central vehicle for us.
BILL MOYERS: Danielle Brian and Sheila Krumholz, thank you very much for being here, and thank you for what you do.
SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: Thank you.
DANIELLE BRIAN: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: At BillMoyers.com, go to our money and politics page. We’ll link you to pogo, The Project On Government Oversight, and to OpenSecrets, the website of the center for responsive politics. As well as other watchdogs on guard against those who would sell democracy to the highest bidder. That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.