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Pete Peterson’s Purchase of Cat Food Commission, Media Pays Off

I wanted to highlight something about the Cat Food Commission to permanently shrink government, something we’ve all known about, but which hasn’t been laid out in specific detail in a while. This Presidential commission has been borrowing paid staffers from groups that are ideologically committed to destroying the social safety net in America. This hasn’t been well-reported in the traditional media until today.

Instead, about one in four commission staffers is paid by outside entities, many of which have strong ideological points of view about how to tackle the deficit.

For example, the salaries of two senior staffers, Marc Goldwein and Ed Lorenzen, are paid by private groups that have previously advocated cuts to entitlement programs. Lorenzen is paid by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, while Goldwein is paid by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is also partly funded by the Peterson group.

The outsourcing has come under sharp criticism from seniors’ organizations and liberal activists, who say the strategy is part of a broader conservative bias favoring painful entitlement cuts over other solutions. The fears of some liberal groups appeared to come true on Wednesday, when the commission’s two leaders recommended significant reductions for Social Security and other social-welfare programs.

The article could have gone further. Indeed practically all of the commission staff paid for by outside groups have one tie or another to Pete Peterson, the billionaire hedge fund manager who has sought to kill Social Security for several decades. And this is certainly true of the top-level staff. The Economic Policy Institute sent one staffer, Ethan Pollack, to the commission, and he has clearly been sidelined.

And this played out in the outside coverage of the commission report, which mirrors the position of the commission because it’s paid for by the same person. One of the first words of praise for the Bowles-Simpson report came from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Peterson-funded group. Almost nobody else was so quick with a comment about the hastily drawn press event and report, so CRFB featured heavily in many of the stories today. There’s almost no question that they had a heads-up, along with other ideological compatriots like Third Way. On NPR today, they invited one person on to comment about the co-chair’s mark – David Walker, who has been paid by the Pete Peterson Foundation for many years. The rollodexes of practically every major reporter in Washington are filled with “experts” with ties to the Peterson Foundation. A pernicious feedback loop has developed: Peterson staffers are inside the commission as well as commenting from outside the commission. They’re all speaking with one voice.

Add to that the $20 million dollar investment in paid media by Peterson himself with the “OweNo” campaign, and it’s possible to watch a segment on cable TV on the cat food commission featuring a Peterson staffer, followed by a paid Peterson commercial, followed by turning to your morning paper to read about the commission in an article full of quotes from Peterson staffers. The man has bought a large chunk of the media, and the result will be that his views will get a much wider airing than anyone else’s.

Now despite that, the recommendations of Bowles and Simpson are wildly unpopular. But I agree with Adam Serwer – only Republican dishonesty about the deficit can really save us here. If they agree to the relatively minor concessions, the Peterson-led onslaught is almost certain to browbeat the other side into acceptance.

UPDATE: This is really incredible. The White House’s top political advisor had to get the deficit commission report off the Internet, but Peterson-funded groups were tipped off, presumably by Peterson-funded staffers. And it’s a Presidential commission!

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David Dayen

David Dayen