In the Washington media, there is a well-established tradition of respecting what I've long called the No Money Rule. Simply put, in the day-to-day coverage of politics, D.C. reporters tend to avoid focusing on the power of money over both parties, knowing that openly mentioning that influence is seen as uncouth in Washington's elite circles. It is viewed this way because talking about corporate cash, campaign contributions and corruption exposes politics for what it really is: not some high-minded intellectual exchange, not an honorable debate between statesmen, not even a competitive sport between ideological players, but instead a hideous greed-driven melee between moneyed interests -- one enabled by both parties and, quite often, much of the media itself.
Because of this No Money Rule, then, nobody should be surprised that there was almost no mention in any of the media of the real news behind Jim DeMint's announcement that he is leaving the U.S. Senate to head the Heritage Foundation. And that real news is this: His announcement is perhaps 2012's most biting message yet about the supremacy of money in American politics. Yes, even in a year whose presidential race was utterly dominated by super PAC special interest cash, nothing tells the story of where the true authority in politics lies than a sitting senator leaving a top post in the national government to lead a corporate-funded think tank.
The key to appreciating the lesson of this story is to understand that the move isn't seen as a demotion or as an early retirement program. Power-wise, it is -- correctly -- seen as a step up.
”Jim DeMint’s power in the conservative movement just grew exponentially," wrote RedState's Eric Erickson, summing up the pervasive media and political reaction to the news. "A man who was going to retire in four years anyway, will now be leading the conservative movement from its base of operations for years to come."
Sure, DeMint probably had a personal financial motive in making the move -- the Heritage presidency's $1.1 million annual salary is, no doubt, a big step up from his federal salary. But as a professional politician who has shown a clear interest in leveraging conservative policymaking power, DeMint is almost certainly making the move to increase that power for himself. Indeed, he is now bragging that his new job will put him in "a more powerful position" to shape public policy. How telling that he will accomplish such a goal by moving out of the body that is supposed to make policy.
The key point, of course, is that there's a difference between theory and reality -- between "supposed to" and "does." That difference perfectly explains DeMint's move, for in practice, a Congress that officially exists to make policy has today become an institution that most often follows policy orders. And the orders with the most agency are given by moneyed interests.
That's where the Heritage Foundation comes in. For all its self-billing as an academic-style "think tank" in the high-minded "war of ideas," Heritage (like so many conservative "think tanks") is an $80-million-a-year clearinghouse of moneyed interests looking to turn their private objectives into public policy.
A glimpse at the organization's funders underscores that reality. As People for the American Way's analyses of financial filings and news coverage shows, Heritage has received donations from a wide swath of business interests, including (among others) General Motors, Ford Motors, Procter and Gamble, Mobil Oil and Smith Kline Corp. It has also raked in contributions from corporate-funded nonprofits like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. And this, by the way, is only what we know about, because 501(c)3 organizations like Heritage do not have to disclose their funders.
In moving out of the U.S. Senate and to this corporate clearinghouse, DeMint is openly revealing that the latter is where the real policymaking power now lies. He is effectively acknowledging that thanks to Heritage's financial heft in the era of Huge Money politics, Congress has more often than not said "how high" when the organization says "jump." (And that's true even when Democrats are in control: recall that parts of President Obama's healthcare bill trace their roots to -- you guessed it! -- Heritage.)
It's an honest (though unstated) admission that tells a crucial tale. It is the tale of the corruption of our democracy to the point where the elected policymakers are clearly no longer making the policy and where the people's representatives no longer possess the most power.