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The Everyday Corruption of the United States Congress

Just hundreds of middle managers making themselves a little richer.

In 2015, I wrote a story for Vice News about the local elections in Ukraine, the first major vote since the 2014 snap elections that shifted the country’s support behind then-president Petro Poroshenko following the country’s Maidan revolution.

This is not a blog about the intricacies of Ukrainian local politics, but the situation, I think, is relevant, so bear with me.

I covered the election from Mariupol, a city on Ukraine’s southern coast that was and still is a major focal point in the country’s conflict with Russia. When the Russians invaded in early 2014, their Ukrainian separatist proxy forces and local insurgents actually took Mariupol, controlling parts of the city for over a month until they were pushed out, largely by a pro-government neo-Nazi militia called the Azov battalion. (Mariupol is, as they say, a land of contrasts.)

The October 2015 elections were the first chance that the country’s oligarchs — broadly, a group of extremely rich guys who made money by hoovering up industry during the fall of the Soviet Union — would have to re-adjust to the new political landscape and install their guys in elected seats across the country. In Mariupol, the main oligarch is Rinat Akmehtov, a steel tycoon with business in Russia and Ukraine, who, at the time, employed something like 50% of the entire city. Naturally, Akmehtov had a guy in the race for mayor: a young executive named Vadim Boychenko, who used to be the personnel director at one of his largest steel companies. You can see where this is going.

I met Boychenko with a group of other journalists, and got the impression that he was really just a middle manager. He wasn’t trying to become an oligarch, or rule the world. He honestly didn’t seem all that interested in becoming mayor, especially when compared to his opponent, a bedraggled former computer programmer running against him at the head of a long-shot populist party. But by running for mayor in Mariupol, Boychenko got to ride a very rich person’s coattails and basically ensure a comfortable and stable life for his children and probably his children’s children. To him, that’s politics! It’s a steady job, right — might as well hold on to it and take what you can get. After the first vote was thrown out by claims that Akmehtov did voter fraud to help Boychenko win (lol), Boychenko won the repeat election a month later. He is still the mayor of Mariupol today.

In the U.S. we like to think that our politicians are different in some way. Ukraine is a corrupt country, as we all know because it’s relatively common knowledge and because our president has said it so many times on live TV. But in the U.S., we have “ethics” and “laws” which supposedly make it so that the people we elect to make those laws don’t do shady insider shit in order to stay in power and get richer while disregarding the actual interests of the people who voted for them. By now I think most Americans know that this is bullshit, but every so often we get a fantastic look at just how silly the whole charade is.

Which brings us to Donna Shalala, the representative  from Florida’s 27th Congressional District. Shalala has been floating around for years — she was the secretary of Health and Human Services under Clinton, president of the University of Miami, and then president of the Clinton Foundation; her resume might as well leave all that stuff off and just scream “I’m a big safe status-quo Democrat.” Shalala is, as far as national politics go, basically a middle manager.

Last week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi named Shalala to a new five-person Congressional Oversight Commission set up specifically to make sure that the $4.5 trillion in potential corporate lending being doled out by the Trump Administration was being doled out as appropriately as $4.5 trillion dollars can be when it’s going to companies and not people. Until Shalala and a couple Republicans got named to the commission, its only member was a former Elizabeth Warren staffer who was literally being forced to scream at the Fed on Twitter in order to get some modicum of transparency into the process. Great — at least there’s a safe Democratic vote on this impromptu commission with a massive amount of power over which lives and jobs and salaries will be saved during the devastating recession caused by a deadly pandemic.

The problem is that a safe Democratic vote like Shalala’s doesn’t look all that different from a safe Republican one. As David Dayen noted in the American Prospect, Shalala isn’t really qualified for the position and has seemingly little interest in doing the job. What she DOES have, however, is this:

She holds shares in Boeing, as well as Alaska Airlines and Spirit Aerosystems, which builds a lot of pieces of Boeing aircraft. She owns Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, and Occidental Petroleum at a time of a historic crash in oil prices. She owns entertainment stock in Paramount, Live Nation, and AMC Theaters, the latter almost certainly headed to bankruptcy. She owns Choice Hotels; nobody’s staying in hotels. She owns TripAdvisor; nobody’s taking trips. She owns retailers and retail producers Ralph Lauren, L Brands, Burlington Stores, and Five Below; retail’s in trouble (she’s also got Walmart, so she’s OK there). She owns big banks JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of New York Mellon, BBVA Compass, and HSBC.

All of that is just the tip of the iceberg; Shalala has stakes in companies spanning a breathtaking range of the American corporate landscape, including significant amounts in banks that will have direct dealings with the Fed during corporate bailouts like the coronavirus package. She also violated Congressional ethics by not disclosing stock sales after she was elected in 2019. That one got her in a little trouble, but never fear: Pelosi is sticking by her.

Congress is filled with Donna Shalalas, on both sides of the aisle. She is easy to single out for this particular instance, because she’s a 79-year-old first term representative whose net worth is somewhere between $4.6 and $13.5 million. Shalala’s position on the commission gives Pelosi a vote she can leverage when making concessions to Republicans, which appears to her primary occupation these days besides eating ice cream out of her $24,000 fridge. Pelosi’s net worth is at LEAST $16 million and probably much higher; California’s combined 55 members of Congress alone had a net worth of $439 million in 2016.

Those numbers are gross, but in the grand scheme of money and politics, not exactly oligarch-level. But they belong to people who are so safe and insulated from the actual stakes of politics that the decisions they make have little bearing on their actual lives. They are company men and women; they serve so that the actual CEOs don’t have to run for office (unless they’re particularly narcissistic sociopaths like Michael Bloomberg or Donald Trump). They are middle managers. When Shalala retires or keels over in office from her second stroke, someone who serves essentially the same purpose will take her place.

There’s one thing I can say for Boychenko, at least — we know who his boss is. When I met him, in a conference room in a building owned by the local TV station that Akmehtov also owns, he almost smirked when he told the group of western reporters that he had never met Akmehtov, and that no one could prove he was acting as his agent. Everyone knew what the game was — it was almost refreshing. Boychenko is owned by one person, Rinat Akmehtov, who controls the city of Mariupol. In the United States, however, it’s slightly more difficult to puzzle out who owns the Florida 27th, or the California 12th. Unlike Ukraine, where different oligarchs have been forced to align themselves in accordance with their major holdings on two sides of an actual shooting war, the ones in America are all roughly on the same team. The distinction between Donna Shalala and Kelly Loeffler is really only one of age and general subtlety, not motivation or ideals. Will Shalala help the airlines, the cruise ships, or the banks with her immensely powerful position? Your guess is as good as mine. But it should be pretty clear that the people she’s certainly not looking out for are the ones who elected her.

Images: CBS/CBS Miami