Haggling for Hagel

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Where there’s war there’s money. With his nomination for Secretary of Defense soon to come before the Senate, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel can anticipate plenty of questions about his views on foreign policy. He made enemies on the neoconservative right by criticizing George W. Bush’s handling of the second Iraq War (though Hagel supported the invasion initially), his calls for direct negotiations with Iran and Hamas, and his mild demurrals from full-throated backing of Israeli leaders. Likely because of this reaction, and because President Obama backs him, liberal resistance to his nomination has been light. So far as I know, the Senate is not expected to examine his domestic record with much vigor. However, given his role on the Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, a review of his major donors suggests at least a few questions are warranted.

A visit to OpenSecrets.org quickly provides a list of Hagel’s major campaign donors over his tenure. Most of them are either Nebraska-based, financial, or both. Top donor to Hagel was the Kiewit Corporation, an Omaha-based construction and mining company, one of the world’s largest contractors. Next were Citigroup, a natural for the former president of an investment bank (Omaha’s McCarthy Group), and insurance/financial services titan Mutual of Omaha. Rounding out the top five were Omaha’s Union Pacific Corporation, centering on the railroad industry, while California-based Edison International‘s subsidiary, the Edison Mission Group, has multiple contracts building and running wind farms in Nebraska.

Bank of America brokerage Merrill Lynch, insurance giant AIG, and investment bankers Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase all gave significant amounts to Hagel, as did the largest privately-held bank in the country, First National Bank of Omaha. Other financial groups contributing to Hagel, a member of the Subcommittee on Securities, Insurance and Investment and the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions were the American Bankers Association, the National Association of Insurance & Financial Advisors (a political action committee) and Omaha investors the America First Companies.

ConAgra Foods, Omaha’s food packaging giant, energy companies like coal miners Murray Energy and oil and natural gas behemoth ExxonMobil, and communications corporations Level 3 Communications, a subsidiary of Kiewit during Hagel’s tenure, and Huntel Systems (of Blair, Nebraska) all gave to Hagel, as did pharma fixture GlaxoSmithKline and the American Medical Association.

Overall, Hagel received donations of more than a million dollars from the insurance, securities and investment, and commercial banking industries. Nor has Hagel left his banking and investment background behind after leaving the Senate. According to Wikipedia:

In the private sector, he serves on the board of directors of Chevron Corporation, Deutsche Bank’s Americas Advisory Board, and the advisory board of Corsair Capital, and is a director of the Zurich Holding Company of America and a senior advisor to McCarthy Capital Corporation.

It’s not surprising that an Administration as Wall Street-friendly as Obama’s would choose a man with close ties to finance like Hagel, particularly to head the largest employer in the world, the US Department of Defense. He’ll control half the federal discretionary budget and decide whose contracts get cut and whose remain. Instead of focusing entirely on foreign policy controversies, watchdogs would be wise to follow the money domestically as well.

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