Over the last few days, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have made the case that Harvard professor and Congressional Oversight Panel chairwoman Elizabeth Warren is essentially too controversial (potentially not "confirmable," in Dodd-speak) a figure to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). This, then, raises the revealing question of how Washington defines "controversial?"
Yada, yada. Cut to the chase:
The message to both today's generation and the future generation of citizens who may aspire to work in government is pretty clear: If you are personally/financially connected to private for-profit corporations that underwrite political campaigns - even the ones that helped destroy the economy - then Washington has no problem with your appointment to a position overseeing those same private corporations. But if you forge an independent path and are not connected to those corporations and to that sluice of corporate campaign cash, you are suspect - and probably will have trouble getting a job in government. Why? Because the former cadre of insiders poses no real threat to the economic status quo - while the latter kind of independent outsider like Elizabeth Warren might actually rock the boat. Defining "controversial" this way, thus, creates a perverse incentive system: Going through the revolving door is rewarded as noncontroversial, while refusing to go through the revolving door is effectively punished as too controversial.
This is how corruption tends to work most often in D.C. On a day to day basis, it's far less the brazen money-for-votes schemes, and far more the narrowing of the political debate and the distortion of political language itself. In this case, it's the hijacking of the concept of "controversial" so as to marginalize an agent of change. And if that hijacking ends up preventing Elizabeth Warren from heading the CFPB, then, indeed, the status quo will - once again - have won.
In Ms. Warren's case, 'controversial' is literally a 'weasel word' - a word used by the weasels who want to be in charge of the henhouse and look out for the best interests of the weasels as opposed to someone who might actually do what they're supposed to and look out for the best interests of the chickens.
Shorter: same old, same old.