The H Street Project

Column: Anatomy of a liberal shakedown

John Podesta / AP
May 24, 2013

What a fantastic talent liberals possess, the ability to talk out of both sides of their mouths. One side utters platitudes about campaign finance reform and the nefarious influence of money in politics, while the other whispers in the ears of oligarchs and plutocrats. One side slanders Republicans as the tools of corporate interests, while the other solicits donations from some of the largest corporations in the world. The next journalist to examine influence peddling on K Street need only walk two blocks south, to H Street. There he’ll find one heck of a story.

H Street is the home of the Center for American Progress (CAP), founded by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta in the fall of 2003. Originally conceived as a think tank to match the conservative Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, CAP quickly dropped the thinking and became, simply, a tank. Its objective was to overpower conservatives and Republicans, to devastate them with a fusillade of government activism, to pulverize their fortifications with ammunition loaded into the progressive echo chamber.

Good weapons don’t come cheap. CAP requires considerable stimulus to acquire, track, and destroy its targets. Podesta’s fundraising methods, as one might expect from a Clintonite, were ingenious. He incorporated two entities: The Center for American Progress as a tax-deductible nonprofit 501(c)(3), and the Center for American Progress Action Fund as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4). Donations would not be disclosed, allowing contributors the protection of anonymity even as CAP called for transparency in political giving and government regulation of political speech.

CAP and CAP Action shared office space, and employees of one entity often wrote for the other, but Podesta’s media flacks always were careful to distinguish between them. CAP, for instance, is where you find the high-toned stuff, the demographic determinism of Ruy Teixeira and the collected ravings of Larry Former Reagan Official Korb.

CAP Action is of a lower brow. It publishes the ThinkProgress blog, where for a time you could read, among other critics of the "lobby," the foreign policy analysis of one Zaid Jilani, who described his opponents on Twitter as "Israel-firsters"; the creative misspellings of amateur philosopher and terrorist impersonator Matthew Yglesias; and the factually half-baked conspiracy theories of Lee Fang. Think of them as the greats.

Like other greats, all three young men have since left the building, moving on to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (Jilani), Slate (Yglesias), and the Nation (Fang). Funny enough, it was another Nation writer, Ken Silverstein, who published the bombshell report last week on the finances of his colleague's former employer, exposing for the first time the identities of corporate donors to the Center for American Progress.

Silverstein’s work, like other reporting from the Los Angeles Times and Mother Jones and the WFB, explores the numerous ditches and culverts irrigated by the river of left-wing dark money that flows through American politics. Essential reading, his piece reveals the extent to which liberal groups benefit from the business community’s desire to get right with the mandarins who have the power to sue and investigate and boycott and demonize. For immunity, and for favor, companies are willing to pay a pretty penny.

Silverstein describes how CAP, in just a few years, grew from seed money provided by the secretive Democracy Alliance of progressive donors to obtain assets of more than $20 million. Its finances took a hit in 2006 despite the Democratic victory in that year’s midterm elections. The following year, CAP management created the Business Alliance, "a membership rewards program for corporate contributors."

Money came in. And when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the alliance grew. "CAP’s total assets now top $44 million," Silverstein reports, "and its Action Fund treasury holds $6 million more." CAP’s ability to reflect and influence the opinion of liberal elites, however, is priceless.

Silverstein obtained a document CAP used in 2011 to pitch possible members of the Business Alliance. Slog past the barely literate sentences—"Recognizing the importance of the private sector perspective in the issues debate, the Business Alliance program has proven to be a successful way to keep CAP and its experts connected with and cognizant of business perspectives on the issues of highest priority on our work"—and one arrives finally at the nitty-gritty.

Three levels of membership are described. A $25,000 annual contribution gains one’s corporation entry to "regularly scheduled roundtable discussions with CAP experts, business, Hill, and national leaders"; "two opportunities to engage CAP experts in private meetings"; "invitation to VIP events with leaders from government, business, and academia"; and "updates on new CAP reports and products from Business Alliance staff relevant to your unique interests."

For a $50,000 annual contribution, one’s corporation enjoys all of those benefits, as well as "two additional opportunities to engage CAP experts in private meetings"; an "exclusive Business Alliance overview meeting offering analyses of issues on Capitol Hill"; and a "private session with American Progress communications and outreach staff."

And for those special interests that just can’t meet and engage and attend sessions enough, a $100,000 contribution gets one’s corporation all of those benefits, as well as a "membership in Green Energy Economy Council (GEEC)"; a "membership in International Business Council pilot program"; an "invitation to participate in Global Progress Summit"; and a "private meeting with a member of the American Progress Executive Committee." Only in Obama’s America does it cost $100k to be called a GEEC.

Not stated directly, of course, is that what all of the briefings and interactions and councils get you is entry into the corridors of a think tank with close ties to the presidency. Podesta, whose brother is one of the most influential lobbyists in town, oversaw the transition team that staffed the Obama administration. As American Progress chairman, he watches over his empire. The current head of CAP is Neera Tanden, who has worked for Obama and Hillary Clinton. Tom Perriello, a former liberal Democratic congressman who was one of the president’s favorites, runs CAP Action. These are influential people.

So influential are they, that the Department of Energy loan program that gave us Solyndra and First Solar was largely designed in CAP’s offices. Silverstein tells the appalling story of how a CAP representative praised First Solar in congressional testimony, and promoted it in CAP publications, without revealing that the solar manufacturer was a member of the Business Alliance, and that one of CAP’s board members was also on the board of First Solar. (He left the First Solar board in 2012.)

"CAP’s promotion of the company’s interests has supplemented First Solar’s aggressive Washington lobbying efforts, on which it spent more than $800,000 during 2011 and 2012," Silverstein writes. The investment returned dividends. Such lobbying has allowed First Solar to enjoy hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-backed loans and subsidies.

"CAP is a strong proponent of alternative energy, so there’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of its advocacy," Silverstein observes. No reason at all. Yet I wonder if Silverstein would have been so charitable if the organization he was describing was, say, Americans for Prosperity, and the donors Charles and David Koch.

We know already that as long as the companies belong to politically correct institutions and back politically correct causes, they are indulged and given the benefit of the doubt. But this street goes in only one direction. Travel with the wrong fellows, support the wrong causes, and you will be picketed, boycotted, tarred, feathered, and dragged through the media mud.

What First Solar and other members of the Business Alliance such as Pacific Gas and Electric, General Electric, Boeing, Lockheed, the University of Phoenix, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkey, Goldman Sachs, Walmart, and Comcast are really buying, then, is not so much access but insurance. They are contributing to the Center for American Progress so that they, too, can benefit from the liberal ability to speak from both sides of the mouth. They can reap the benefits of the market, and even of government privilege, so long as they express concern, real or fake, over global warming or abortion rights or affirmative action or whatever the liberal cause of the day happens to be.

They are not participating in an intellectual project or a political movement or a trade association but a shakedown, a scam, a caper—a compelling and labyrinthine detective story that is only beginning to be unraveled.