Thursday, February 4, 2016

Hillary Clinton is Emblematic of an "Honorarium Problem" in Politics

"We came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt" Hillary Clinton told Diane Sawyer.  Sixteen years later the Clintons are reputed to be worth $111 million. Much of that wealth has come from speaking fees with "honorariums" of up to $675,000. Hundreds of speeches. By both Clintons. Pretty soon you're talking about real money.

In the video above Anderson Cooper asks Hillary Clinton about $675,000 Goldman Sachs paid her for three speeches after she resigned her position as Secretary of State (February 2013) and before she announced her run for the presidency (April 12,  2015).
"Honorarium":  a payment for a service (as making a speech) on which custom or propriety forbids a price to be set. 
In the world where I come from honorariums are tokens of appreciation, they are not real money meant to compensate or to secure influence and loyalty. But in the case of politicians who hold powerful offices, or are likely to hold powerful offices in the future, honorariums are not token: they are so large that they are bound to influence. And there is not much propriety.

Consider the relationship between Hillary and Corning, Inc., a New York glass company when she was the junior senator from New York. Here's Jonathan Allen at Vox (updated 5/16/15):
[When] Hillary Clinton ran for reelection to the Senate on her way to seeking the presidency for the first time, the New York Times reported on her unusually close relationship with Corning, Inc., an upstate glass titan. Clinton advanced the company's interests, racking up a big assist by getting China to ease a trade barrier. And the firm's mostly Republican executives opened up their wallets for her campaign. During Clinton's tenure as secretary of state, Corning lobbied the department on a variety of trade issues, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The company has donated between $100,000 and $250,000 to her family's foundation. And last July, when it was clear that Clinton would again seek the presidency in 2016, Corning coughed up a $225,500 honorarium for Clinton to speak.....Together, Hillary and Bill Clinton cleared $25 million on the lecture circuit over the last 16 months, according to a Hillary Clinton's personal financial disclosure required of presidential candidates. .... [Will] they [be] able to listen to all of the various interests without being unduly influenced by any of them[?] There's a reason government officials can't accept gifts: They tend to have a corrupting effect. 
Chris Cillizza correctly notes in the Washington Times this morning that Clinton seems annoyed by Anderson Cooper's question in the video above, and he shakes his head:
[S]ure, $675,000 is a lot of money to take for speeches but she is a former first lady, senator and secretary of state. It's not out of the ballpark that someone with that résumé would be compensated at such high levels. That's what Clinton truly believes. And she's not good — as she made plain with her answer last night — at hiding her disdain/ skepticism when questioned about it. But, politics is all about playing up your strengths and taking attention away from your weaknesses. The amount of money Hillary and Bill Clinton made from speech-giving — more than $25 million in 16 months — is a weakness. Period. It undercuts the idea that she is a committed fighter for wage equality or a voice of the 99 percent trying to level the playing field with the one percent. In short: Clinton needs to find a WAY better answer to questions about her speaking fees than "that's what they offered." And soon.
This is not just about the Clintons, of course. Ben Carson was paid $4.1 million in speaking fees in advance of his presidential campaign. Jeb Bush "left the governorship of Florida in 2007 with a declared net worth of less than $1.3 million, which he’s multiplied nearly 16-fold on the back of his prestigious last name, extensive network, and executive experience," says Forbes. Similarly, Mike Huckabee "leveraged a failed 2008 presidential bid into a highly successful media career that included a TV show and appearances on Fox News, radio gigs, books and speeches. He’s now worth $9 million." It's the system, as Bernie Sanders points out.

The Clintons are obviously very good at playing the system: $111-million-of-personal-wealth-in-15-years worth of good at playing the system. There are good arguments to be made that this should disqualify a person from seeking higher office. It's emblematic of the problem of money in politics.

Others are paid high speaking fees. A sum of $200,000 per speech seems to be within the ballpark of the going rate for big stars speaking to large assemblies. And ex-presidents and secretaries of state are certainly big stars. We don't compensate our politicians very well. They are supremely talented people who forego the opportunity to pursue business or more lucrative professions in order to serve the public, so why should we begrudge them high speaking fees after they have completed their service? No reason--and good for them--I say. But not while they are in office, and not if they want to run for office in future.

Politicians are addicted to money and to raising money. Our democratic system is corrupted by money. And some of that money makes its way into the personal bank accounts of politicians in the form of "honorariums." The first step to overcome any addiction, of course, is to admit that we have a problem.  Based on her response to Anderson Cooper, in her heart of hearts Hillary Clinton is not ready to admit that she has a problem or that the system has a problem.

It's the issue Bernie Sanders is running on....

You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.


  1. The Corning Glass issue cuts both ways, (he badly punned). There is a 22 1/2 % duty on glass coming from China. There are major glass manufacturers in New York and especially Ohio who benefit from this cost advantage.
    One could say that the special interest of the glass manufacturers artificially affects the market making consumers spend more for glass products and thus it is a corrupt practice.
    However, as a supporter of those good old American workers (and voters in Ohio), the tariff keeps them employed making glass.
    In the big economic picture, is it better for consumers to have low priced goods or workers to have jobs.
    Our economy has skewed towards low priced goods.
    Perhaps, Ms. Clinton has found a way to triangulate while making a few bucks herself.

  2. As my friend Victor pointe out, "Which senator wouldn't stand up for their constituent?" In general, our government policies have skewed pro-free trade over the past three decades. This has been to the detriment of workers in manufacturing. Those constituents have been left out in the cold. Here we have an exception made for glass-manufacturers. I represented a Chinese manufacturer of curtain wall panels who was on the receiving end of this tariff. The issue here is whether big money contributions to HC's campaigns and to her personal account in the form of honorariums are driving her position more than the policy. "Triangulation" driven by personal gain is corruption; the only way to eliminate the appearance of impropriety is to eliminate the personal gain until you're done with politics.