Washington Babylon — September 15, 2008, 10:36 am

A Bipartisan Guide to the Financial Collapse: Who’s not taking money from Merrill and Lehman?

“Both the Republicans and Democrats have given the financial services industry everything it wanted. The finance sector has endless amounts of money to influence politics and can outgun the bank regulators every time.” That was Richard Christopher Whalen, Managing Director of Institutional Risk Analytics, in an interview here last fall–which goes a long way towards explaining how we got to today’s unfolding news, with Merrill Lynch being sold to Bank of America for roughly $50 billion and Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy protection.

Let’s take a look at the latest casualties in the collapsing financial sector. Opensecrets.org describes Merrill Lynch as having been “a dominant voice in efforts to deregulate the financial services industry.” During the last two decades, the company and its employees have donated nearly $14 million to political campaigns, with about two-thirds of that going to Republicans (that gap narrowed dramatically after Democrats took control of congress in 2006).

Meanwhile, the firm has shelled out nearly $40 million for lobbyists in the last decade alone, with its own in-house efforts supplemented by a host of hired beltway firms. The firm’s lobbyists have included Democrats like:

  • Jeff Peck, described by The Hill as the consultant “Wall Street turns to… for representation in the Democratic-controlled Congress” and who lobbied for the firm’s “blueprint” for regulatory reform;
  • Carmencita Whonder, the former principal adviser on the Senate Banking Committee to Senator Charles Schumer; and
  • Tanya Lombard, whose previous employers include Philip Morris and Congressman William “Cold Cash” Jefferson. Last year, Merrill hired former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford as a vice chairman and senior policy adviser.

Merrill’s G.O.P. lobbyists have included Judy Black, wife of key McCain aide Charlie Black, and Vicki Hart, a member of the Women for McCain Steering Committee.

It’s the same rough picture over at Lehman Brothers. The firm, says Opensecrets.org, “has built a strong financial relationship with politicians over the years and coincidentally ranks fourth in the largest contributors in the race for the White House.” Barack Obama has received $395,600 from Lehman and its employees, while John McCain has taken in $117,500.

A total of 271 current members of Congress have received donations from Merrill and its employees, collecting $3 million since 1989, with 72 percent going to Democrats. But GOP Congressman Mike Castle, of the House Financial Services Committee, is the No. 1 recipient of the firm’s PAC, with $38,500 in donations since 1993.

Lehman’s lobbying expenditures since 1998 come to roughly $6 million. Its hired guns have included Vicki Hart from the McCain campaign, David Urban, a former chief of staff for Senator Arlen Specter; and Carlyle Thorsen, a former chief of staff to Tom DeLay. On the Democratic side there’s Andrew Athy, a former counsel to House Energy Committee chairman John Dingell, and Andrew Eskin, a one-time legislative director to Senator Richard Bryan of the Banking Committee.

So how will the presidential campaigns and congressional candidates seek to politically exploit the collapse of the financial sector? Very, very carefully.

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Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.

Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”

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