Joe Manchin’s Conflict of Interest

Even now, from time to time a television pundit will look at the camera, and with a knowing smile assure us that Joe Manchin knows how to win elections in West Virginia. He knows his voters. The unspoken message here is that this is how it has to be. If we want a Democratic senator from West Virginia, he has to be way to the Right of the rest of the party. So sad, but we just have to work with what we’ve got.

I can’t argue that Manchin doesn’t know how to win elections in West Virginia, since he does win them, but “knowing his voters” isn’t necessarily part of the formula.

There’s a major exposé of Manchin in Rolling Stone by Jeff Goodell headlined “Manchin’s Coal Corruption Is So Much Worse Than You Knew.” (If you aren’t a subscriber, and I’m not, trying to read an article in Rolling Stone is a precarious thing. Sometimes you will be blocked by a firewall, but sometimes it will let you read an article, or at least give you a few minutes before the firewall comes up. I did a quick copy-and-paste into a Word file so I could read it without fighting with it. Do give it a try, though. This is juicy stuff.)

A representative paragraph:

The truth is, Manchin is best understood as a grifter from the ancestral home of King Coal. He is a man with coal dust in his veins who has used his political skills to enrich himself, not the people of his state. He drives an Italian-made Maserati, lives on a houseboat on the Potomac River when he is in D.C., pals around with corporate CEOs, and has a net worth of as much as $12 million. More to the point, his wealth has been accumulated through controversial coal-related businesses in his home state, including using his political muscle to keep open the dirtiest coal plant in West Virginia, which paid him nearly $5 million over the past decade in fees for coal handling, as well as costing West Virginia electricity consumers tens of millions of dollars in higher electricity rates (more about the details of this in a moment). Virginia Canter, who was ethics counsel to Presidents Obama and Clinton, unabashedly calls Manchin’s business operations “a grift.” To Canter, Manchin’s corruption is even more offensive than Donald Trump’s. “With Trump, the corruption was discretionary — you could choose to pay thousands of dollars to host an event at Mar-a-Lago or not,” Canter tells me. In contrast, Manchin is effectively taking money right out of the pockets of West Virginians when they pay their electric bills. They have no say in it. “It’s one of the most egregious conflicts of interest I’ve ever seen.”

Goodell explains that Manchin’s grift is not unique to Manchin. It is a standard feature of West Virginia politics going way back. The politicians and the coal mine owners are on the same team. And this takes us to the second point, which is that there would be no coal mining industry left if it weren’t for corrupt politicians like Manchin protecting it. Otherwise it would have gone the way of the horse and buggy by now and been replaced by newer, less expensive (and environmentally damaging) technologies.

Yes, West Virginians do vote for Manchin. Until recently the United Mine Workers supported Manchin. He was better for coal miners than his Republican opponents. But now the union is demanding Manchin change his votes, and his attitude.

Jonathan Weisman writes in the New York Times,

For years, burly men in camouflage hunting jackets have been a constant presence in the Capitol Hill office of Senator Joe Manchin III, their United Mine Workers logos giving away their mission: to lobby not only for the interests of coal, but also on more personal matters such as pensions, health care and funding to address black lung disease.

So when the miners’ union and the West Virginia A.F.L.-C.I.O. came out last month with statements pleading for passage of President Biden’s Build Back Better Act — just hours after Mr. Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, said he was a “no” — the Capitol took notice.

With the miners now officially on the opposite side of the mine owners, it signaled the escalation of a behind-the-scenes struggle centered in Mr. Manchin’s home state to sway the balking senator, whose skepticism about his party’s marquee domestic policy measure has emerged as a potentially fatal impediment to its enactment.

Let us be clear; Manchin is not “skeptical.” Let’s stop saying he is “skeptical.” He doesn’t want the gravy train to stop. He doesn’t want to lose all that coal money, including the half million in coal industry dividends he receives every year.

Weisman says the unions in the past have fought any policies that would have hastened a transition away from coal. But coal jobs have been diminishing for years, anyway, and they are not coming back. Build Back Better provides a lot of stuff that would help West Virginia union members, much of which Manchin has supported in the past. For example, BBB provides funds to help miners with black lung disease. BBB includes billions of dollars in incentives to bring manufacturing jobs to former coal mining regions. BBB provides penalties for employers that block union organizing. And, of course, it provides a lot of help for all low-income workers, of which West Virginia has an overabundance.

The unions have seen the future, and they are not going to stick with coal mine owners until the last scrap of coal is mined, and then end up with nothing.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton said “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” To be fair, this was taken out of context, but Trump took the quote and ran with it, and he promised to bring back coal jobs. “He did not keep that promise,” Weisman writes, “and coal mining employment, which was at about 51,000 jobs when he took office, had fallen to a nadir of 39,000 by the time he was denied a second term.” It has to be said, though, that Trump won West Virginia in 2020 with a nearly identical vote percentage (68.62%) as in 2016 (68.50%). This suggests to me that Democrats could be doing a better job of outreach in West Virginia. But maybe the union will help with that.

Greg Sargent writes that coal mine owners are fighting BBB’s tax incentives to bring new industries to coal minining communities. They see this as hastening their own demise, which it probably is, but the demise is coming one way or another.

The owners aren’t shy about advertising this. The president of the West Virginia Coal Association, which represents the owners, tells the Times that the union is “waving a white flag” by supporting tax incentives, meaning they’re surrendering to coal’s inevitable demise.

“We would have thought they’d go down swinging,” the mine owners’ representative tells the Times. He says it’s folly to trade away “fossil energy jobs” for renewable ones, because the former are “extremely well paid and carry benefits.”

They are well paid and carry benefits because the miners unionized a long time ago. It didn’t happen because of the generous spirits of mine owners. But let’s go on. The United Mine Workers responded to this by saying they are looking out for the well being of the workers. “That’s a remarkable rift,” says Sargent.

Going back to Manchin, the senator had supported incentives to bring new industries to coal country in the past. But when he recently declared himself to be a “no” on BBB, he took the position of the owners and opposed them. Sargent:

Yet in his statement opposing BBB, Manchin faulted BBB’s tax incentives with a barrage of misleading industry claims about what’s truly in the national interest. Manchin says he “cannot explain” BBB to West Virginia. But if miners want it, this posture is much shakier.

Of course he could explain BBB to West Virginia, unless he is a drooling idiot. He just doesn’t want to. But somebody else should have already.

I have not mentioned climate change, which hasn’t been part of the discussion in West Virginia. The mine workers are skeptical of climate change. But, of course, it’s happening, and ending coal power is a critical step that has to be taken now if we’re going to save the planet.  The stakes couldn’t be higher. But Manchin appears to be siding with coal money, against workers, against his party, against his nation, and against the planet.