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Dick Durbin's Shady Play For Wal-Mart


Illinois. It's not surprising that this is the state that gave us Sen. Dick Durbin.

Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin (AP photo)

Illinois. The Economist called it “one of the most mismanaged and corrupt of America's states.” A major academic report on political corruption described it “notorious.”

No other place in America sends more of its elected officials to jail than Chicago, and four of the state's last seven governors went to jail. There's even a book, published last year by two prominent locals, titled “Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism, and Criminality.”

It's not surprising, then, that this is the state that gave us Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin (AP photo) Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin (AP photo)

Elected to Congress in 1982, he has not faced a competitive election since, even including his ascent to the Senate, which he won by 15 points. Inured from the need to assemble an electoral coalition, Durbin has worked assiduously to assemble a kind of special interest coalition.

What sets Durbin apart in the Senate is the zeal with which he does the bidding of his patrons. Many a politician has succumbed to pressure, perhaps taking up a cause primarily for the campaign donations that would result. But few do it so eagerly and energetically, like Durbin does. (Is it any surprise he's married to a lobbyist?)

Currently, Durbin is on the warpath for Wal-Mart and other chain stores. Retail is one of Durbin's key constituents. The others – his donations tell the story – include trial lawyers, organized labor, health insurance companies, and defense contractors. All have given Durbin hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When I say Durbin is eager, here's what I mean: several weeks ago, he attended a congressional hearing for a committee he's not even a member of to launch a broadsides against the lobbying targets of several of his special interest patrons.

“Thanks for letting me hitch a ride onto this hearing,” Durbin began, referencing his conspicuous presence at a hearing for a subcommittee he was not a member of.

Soon he was in the midst of an angry rant about EMVCo, an entity most people have never heard about that sets the technological standards for how credit card payment processing works.

“I am troubled by EMVCo,” Durbin intoned gravely, alleging wild theories about how the organization was manipulating payment technology standards to hurt retail stores.

It seems totally out of left-field, until you realize that the very day Durbin launched his attack in the Senate, a group of retail stores filed a lawsuit against EMVCo.

A week later, Durbin continued his assault, sending a fiery letter to the chairman of EMVCo demanding answers to a series of highly-detailed, extraordinarily technical questions, as well as several simple questions that seemed designed just to intimidate them.

Durbin's shamelessness at acting as one special interest's paid spokesman at a Senate hearing is bad enough, but the story actually goes deeper.

The real stakes are far more simple than how EMVCo writes its standards: this is a shakedown.

In 2010, Durbin was the singular force of nature behind an amendment to a financial reform bill that set price controls on the fees retail stores pay to credit card companies for processing card payments.

The Durbin amendment spawned a K St. holy war that has been playing out ever since. Durbin and the retailers, which actually employed a small lobbyist army that, at 125 “hired guns,” was actually larger than the banks on the other side of the fight, won.

Only a few years later, and the retailers are back for more. This time they want the government to set the prices even lower.

In order to wage the fight, they Durbin and the retailers are trying to create “leverage” anywhere they can. This week, that means attacking some obscure standards committee you've never heard of. But it's part of a larger plan.

These kinds of lobbying fights happen all the time in Washington. What's unusual is Durbin's shameless passion for rolling around in the mud on behalf of his special interest cronies. It's unbecoming for a senator, even one from Illinois.

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