Calling All Flunkies

After a policy huddle with party elders last week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted this simple directive to the rank and file: “Democrats are focused like a laser on health care, and will not be diverted.”

The warning against diversion was timely, with the White House and Republican message-mongers working to turn the midterms into a referendum on a supposed horde of criminals and terrorists rushing our southern border. And for sure, Democratic candidates should be talking about health care now that Americans have begun to notice the ruling party’s determination to make it ever more expensive and less accessible. But must they abandon so much other fertile territory in the Republican record?

How about “the influence of special interests and corruption in Washington,” for example? Even in the space of 280 characters, surely there was room to encourage a little discussion of an issue that according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll ranks just one percentage point behind the economy as the electorate’s top concern — an issue, moreover, on which Democrats had a nine-point advantage before the New York Times’ and ProPublica came out with their latest massive exposès of Trump criminality.

If progressive candidates hope to press their advantage to the fullest, says the longtime Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, they should “crystalize the frustration with corruption into a powerful closing critique.” Indeed they should.

Enter the Wall Street Flunkies Project and the gallery of 32 lawmakers we have chosen to recognize for their exceptional service to Wall Street, eager acceptance of its campaign cash, and utter disregard for the interests of their constituents.”

Lead sponsor of a big-bank giveaway bill written almost word for word by Citigroup, one of his top donors.

Yes, we know, kowtowing to Wall Street is a widespread habit among elected officials, including a fair number of Democrats. Paul Volcker, in his just-published memoir, bemoans not only the resurgent recklessness of the big banks but the rebounding power of “the thousands of individuals and hundreds of millions of dollars in the Washington swamp aimed at influencing the legislative and electoral process.” He is rightly upset.

But it would be wrong to view the 2018 candidate pool as an indistinguishable blob of corruptibility. Check out our dossiers on 13 Major Wall Street Flunkies (our “Bankers’ Dozen”) and 19 Minor Flunkies (“They too have served, and profited”). While we cannot claim mathematical rigor for our selection process, I think you will agree that each and every flunky has done something out of the ordinary to qualify.

There is only one Randy Hultgren, for instance. Out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, only the congressman from Illinois’s 14th district can claim to have introduced a big-bank giveaway bill that turned out to have been written almost word for word by a lobbyist for Citigroup, which then turned out to one of the congressman’s top donors.

Nor are the halls of the Capitol as yet entirely filled with lawmakers like Kentucky’s Andy Barr. Perhaps a few could match his feat of collecting over $3.1 million in career campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and assorted other banks, payday lenders and financial and real estate interests. But it is hard to imagine too many others agreeing to deliver the keynote speech at an “Installment Lenders Summit” and using the occasion to endorse that industry’s call for a rollback of federal loan regulations.

Missouri’s Ann Wagner is another incumbent who has worked overtime to win her flunky stripes. Some might have thought she had done enough by spearheading the congressional effort to kill a regulation requiring retirement savings “advisers” to give honest advice — the kind that puts their clients’ financial interests ahead of their own. Not content with that accomplishment, however, Wagner has further distinguished herself by stacking House hearings with Wall Street-friendly witnesses and helping organize a “Spa Weekend Trip” to Las Vegas where lobbyists could get up close and personal with legislators, among other things.

She could write a handbook for members of Congress on how to raise heaps of $$$ from big banks & financial firms. Few have ever raked in so much so quickly.

In a contest for Top Flunky, Rep. Wagner would be a plausible contender. Then again, Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine could also make a case for himself. The American Bankers Association, he could point out, has decided to fund TV spots for his reelection as part of an effort to build a “pro-banking bench in Congress.” While the bankers don’t say exactly why they have such vast confidence in Poliquin, it could have something to do with his 100% voting record both on the House floor and in the House Financial Services Committee — his 100% pro-Wall-Street record, that is, according to Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition of more than 200 consumer, labor, faith and civic and community organizations.

We are talking about a group of men and women notable not just for their service to Wall Street and the heaps of campaign cash they have attracted in return, but for the fact that according to recent polling a number of them could soon be removed from office. And quite a few of their likely replacements, it should be noted, have vowed to do battle against the role of money in politics if elected.

So the franchise, diminished as it may be, may still be a useful tool in this particular struggle. In the short run, our votes hold the potential to mitigate the erosion of something like the modest rule that Paul Volcker championed (and gave his name to) against letting banks gamble with taxpayer-backed funds. As for the long run, the 2018 elections could contribute in some small way, eventually, to an expanded democracy and a safer and more ethical financial system — one that begins to serve the vast majority of the American people rather just a small privileged slice of us.

These flunkies stand out, in other words. And we have a chance to boot them out. That is a chance to be seized.

Jim Lardner is the chief instigator of the Wall Street Flunkies Project.

Our Bankers’ Dozen (13 top Wall Street Flunkies):

· French Hill (Arkansas)
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Peter Roskam (Illinois)
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Randy Hultgren (Illinois)
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Trey Hollingsworth (Indiana)
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Kevin Yoder (Kansas)
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Andy Barr (Kentucky)
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Bruce Poliquin (Maine)
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Erik Paulsen (Minnesota)
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Ann Wagner (Missouri)
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Tom MacArthur (New Jersey)
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Keith Rothfus (Pennsylvania)
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Mia Love (Utah)
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Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Washington)