Every so often a documentary film comes along that makes you think, “If only more people could see this.”
The Big Buy: Tom Delay’s Stolen Congress, by filmmakers Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck, is such a film. The subject: how corporate money corrupts democracy. The case in point: former Speaker of the House Tom “the Hammer” DeLay’s successful scheme to funnel illegal corporate donations into races for the Texas House in order to gain control the Texas legislature. He then had the legislature redraw congressional district boundaries to give the Republicans control of five additional seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. As DeLay bragged to Fox News, “We took the house, we did redistricting, we gained five Republican seats.”
Though DeLay refused all requests for interviews, the filmmakers give us a pretty good idea of who this man is. We meet Tom “we’re going to completely redesign our government” DeLay through excerpts of an interview he gave after gaining control of the House. The montage includes these gems: “There was a very real revolution in this country. … We are now in charge. Our chairmen are in charge. We can hold hearings, the kind of hearings that we want to see. … The balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a line item veto, we’ll have a crime package, a welfare reform package, a tax cut package … I would like to eliminate the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, HUD, seriously pare down the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA … the National Endowment for the Arts, we ought to zero them out, the National Endowment for the Humanities, we ought to zero them out. And we will do a lot of that and look forward to it. By the time we finish this poker game, there may not be a federal government left, which would suit me just fine.”
We see Jack Abramoff introduce him to a gathering of College Republican leaders: “Tom DeLay is who all of us want to be when we grow up.” Wild applause, hoots and shouts of “Hear, hear!” greet the Hammer as he steps to the podium.
We also get a glimpse of him through the eyes of two Republican women from Sugarland, Texas. According to them, DeLay found Jesus, just at the time the Christian right became ascendant.
“Tom did not get religion until he saw that the Christian Coalition was making some real inroads in Fort Bend County,” says Beverly Carter, the publisher of the Fort Bend/Southwest Star.
They yearn for the days when the Texas Republican Party was not controlled by Bible thumpers. “We abdicated control of the Republican Party to them,” says Carter. “They supported candidates, they knocked on doors, they would man phone banks, they did a lot of things that we didn’t do because we were too lazy to to do them ourselves. And Tom saw that happening and he became very religious all of a sudden.”
A divine intervention or a convergence of interests? All they know is that the man whose party-hardy lifestyle once earned him the moniker “Hot Tub” was now rallying Christian troops at Sugarland Baptist Church one weekend and flying a plane load of lobbyists to Las Vegas the next.
And we also see the unrepentant, indicted DeLay, “We changed the culture of Washington D.C., not just taking the majority, we changed the culture of the town, we’ve changed the country, we’ve changed the world.” (Casting Omen II, anyone?)
Not all change is good.
The star of The Big Buy is good guy Ronnie Earle, the Travis County prosecutor. Since his jurisdiction includes the state’s capitol, Austin, he is charged with making sure state officials uphold the law. Earle was concerned that in 2003 Texans for a Republican Majority, a PAC DeLay founded, violated state law by laundering corporate donations and sending the money into Texas House races. We learn that at least one corporation anted up $25,000 to this Texas cause to get a meeting with DeLay.
But while Earle built a case with specifics, he doesn’t lose sight of the big picture. Nor does Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films, which is distributing The Big Buy. “We want to use the film to give people a tool to make them aware of the corrupt corporate influence on the election process,” says Greenwald. “Tom DeLay is gone but there are a lot of other politicians holding out their tin cup waiting to take his place.”
Earle puts it this way: “The root of all evil is money, especially in politics.”
“Most people think that politics has to be regulated in order for it not to be ruled by the law of the jungle – the law of the playground – where the biggest and richest get the control,” he says. “That is kind of what this is about.”
And Earle recognizes that corporations are an equal-opportunity corruptor.
“Both the Democrats and the Republicans,” says Earle, “walk up and down corporate America’s Main Street with their hands out asking, demanding, almost like protection money. This is a problem for our country. It is every bit as insidious as terrorism.”
This is not hyperbole. Earle quotes Benito Mussolini, who said, “Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.” And in the next sentence, Earle provides his take: “The great danger here is the merger of the power of the state … and the power of the corporations because that will be the death knell of democracy.”
In the grand scheme of things, the Hammer is just a tool. Earle puts it this way:
“This involves a group of corporations that in order to curry favor with powerful elected officials and in order to have greater influence over the regulatory functions of government, put together illegal secret corporate contributions and used that money … to take over state elections in one particular state. … They are going to take it to a state near you if they get away with it here.”
Well, not if the California Nurses Association (CNA) has its way. On June 26, the nurses union’s “clean money” initiative was certified for the November 6 ballot. If passed by the voters, the measure would institute a statewide system of public campaign financing like the ones currently on the books in Maine and Arizona.
“It is going to be a catalyst for cleaning up politics across the country,” says CNA Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro. “There is such a deep-rooted cynicism about politics and the political process and legislators. We are hoping to give hope to everyday people that we can reclaim the state, so that it is not just a league of millionaires who controls California. If we are successful the special interest orgy is going to end.”
In last November’s special election in California, more than $300 million was spent supporting and opposing eight ballot initiatives – a sum DeMoro considers almost criminal considering that California’s education system is currently ranked 44th in the nation. (In two of those initiatives the pharmaceutical industry donated 10 checks worth a total of $83 million.) To prevent such occurrences in the future, the proposed “clean money” reform puts caps on the amount that can be donated to ballot initiative campaigns.
The nurses are expecting “enormous opposition” from the Chamber of Commerce, a group that is reportedly seeking allies among organized labor, particularly the union that represents workers for one of the state’s largest industries, the immensely powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association (also known as the prison guards union).
Once the nurses get Big Money out of politics, then they can go about tackling one of the nation’s greatest ills: its ailing health care system.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.