Diary

Dick Durbin's Life's Work: Shilling for Crony Capitalists

If they ever erect a museum all about big box stores, they should really name it after Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). The man has made it his life’s work to shill for Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Home Depot, and other mega retailers in their crusade to pad their profits via crony capitalism.

Durbin is the unlikely cross between Gomer Pyle’s comical zeal and Frank Underwood’s boundless cynicism.

This is a man who shows up to congressional hearings held by committees he is not a member of to represent retail’s interests. There is literally no battle on retail’s behalf that is beneath him: obscure pricing disputes, arcane regulatory skirmishes, Astroturf boycott campaigns: you name it, Durbin has been there for retail.

The big box stores’ top lobbying group, the National Retail Federation, includes on its website a page dedicated to Durbin with photographs of its lobbyists handing him an ostentatious trophy in his Senate office. Durbin’s 2010 “swipe fees” amendment, the NRF’s hagiography helpfully notes, has resulted in a direct transfer of $20 billion from banks to retail stores in the four years since it came into effect.

According to OpenSecrets, retailers have donated over $600,000 to Durbin since he snuck in an amendment into the Dodd-Frank bill and gifted the retailers billions of dollars.

It’s at once a highly conspicuous payoff to a top benefactor and illustrative how cheaply Durbin has sold out. Relative to K Street pay-to-pay standards, $600,000 is gaudy, but for a $38 billion return, retail’s Durbin acquisition is one of the most lucrative investments in American business in the past several years.

Bloomberg is reporting this week that Durbin has written a letter to the CEO of MasterCard demanding “more information” about “charges the company levies on card issuers when purchases made with one of its brands are processed by a competing network.”

Separately, Bloomberg reported, Durbin wrote the CEO of Visa complaining about a different fee called a “delayed de-conversion assessment.”

ISIS, gun control, immigration – those can wait, the nation demands a debate on delayed de-conversion assessments!

The sad part is, this is shaping up to be Durbin’s legacy as a public servant, although it remains possible Durbin is actually pleased by this, rather than ashamed.

When Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced his retirement from the Senate, Durbin didn’t even mount a challenge against his longtime rival Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Schumer had so eclipsed Durbin in power the fight would have instead been a slaughter. Reid took the reins in 2007; Durbin is currently 71. If history repeats itself, he’ll be 80 when the position next opens up.

In the meantime, he’s on the outside while his top rival runs the show.

Some of the most notable moments of Durbin’s career have been highly polarizing public statements, like when he called for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine or comparing U.S. soldiers to Nazis.

As a legislator, though, Durbin is practically empty-handed, except for his prolific tenure as retail’s top lobbyist, er, congressional advocate. It’s a hapless legacy for the putative second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

My advice to Durbin is this: get an agent. Maybe talk with former Walgreens CEO and Durbin donor, Gregory Wassom, who was able to double his salary from $8 million to over $16 million since the Durbin Amendment became law. With a few phone calls, Durbin could likely be earning millions of dollars a year as president of a retail l, continuing in his life’s work from a perch that is not only vastly more lucrative, but one where you’re supposed to act the way Durbin has been.

It’s a win-win.