WASHINGTON — Call it the revenge of the 1 percent.
President Obama bested Mitt Romney by portraying his Republican opponent as a rich businessman who used offshore tax havens and ran enterprises into the ground without regard for working people.
On Thursday, senators held a confirmation hearing for President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of commerce: a billionaire who benefits from offshore tax havens, whose family owned a failed savings and loan, and who is accused by unions of mistreating workers.
Turns out the wealthy didn’t lose the 2012 election; rather, the Republican rich lost to the Democratic rich.
This is not to question the qualifications of Penny Pritzker, the Hyatt hotels heiress and Democratic mega-donor Obama nominated. I suspect she’ll be a fine commerce secretary when she is confirmed, as she surely will be.
But her confirmation hearing was a reminder of how wealth is power in Washington. A multimillionaire president nominated a billionaire who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his campaigns, and he sent her to be confirmed by the millionaires’ club that is the United States Senate.
“You will certainly have my vote,” Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (average estimated net worth: $103 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics) assured the nominee (net worth $1.85 billion, according to Forbes).
“My hope,” said Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner ($228 million), is “this committee will recommend you.”
Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill ($22 million) told Pritzker, “I find it very refreshing to find someone who is stepping up like you are in this position.”
Another committee member, Sen. Richard Blumenthal ($100 million), didn’t speak at the hearing but issued a statement calling the heiress “a longtime friend with a lifetime of business experience and acumen that will serve her well.”
There wasn’t a mention during the two-hour hearing that the nominee had recently informed the committee that because of a “clerical error,” she omitted more than $80 million in income from the financial disclosures she filed.
The hearing was in its closing minutes before anybody mentioned the tax havens. The ranking Republican, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, did so almost apologetically, saying he was “going to channel Sen. (Chuck) Grassley,” a Republican who is not on the committee who had said it would be “hypocritical” not to press Pritzker on “the kind of tax avoidance activity that the president dismisses as fat-cat shenanigans for others.”
“I am the beneficiary of offshore family trusts that were set up when I was a little girl,” the nominee replied. “I didn’t create them. I don’t direct them.” Neither Thune nor anybody else followed up on her 70-word answer, and the family’s stake in the failed S&L got similar treatment from Thune.
The audience was packed with Hyatt workers in red shirts and baseball caps representing “Unite Here,” a hotel workers union that opposes Pritzker’s confirmation on grounds that Hyatt has “a broad pattern of labor abuses, including aggressive outsourcing, low wages and the mistreatment of housekeepers.”
But the only senator to mention the union complaint was Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who appeared content with Pritzker’s assurance that she has a “good relationship” with labor before they moved on to discuss what the nominee called “the importance of salmon.”
Republicans likely went easy on Pritzker because they saw her as the most pro-business appointee they’re likely to get from a Democrat. And Democrats weren’t about to give an ally a hard time.
Pritzker and her husband have donated nearly $1 million to federal candidates since 1990, almost all to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance. She raised at least $500,000 for Obama’s 2012 campaign and was his campaign finance chairman in 2008. She contributed $250,000 to Obama’s second inaugural and about $120,000 to Democratic committees in the last two election cycles.
This doesn’t mean the lawmakers were bought. But it does add to the impression that the nominee and her interrogators are all part of the same club of the wealthy and the powerful.
About half the members of Congress have a net worth of more than $1 million, CRP found — about 15 times the worth of the typical American household. And it’s a bipartisan club, from Republican committee chairmen Darrell Issa ($480 million) and Michael McCaul ($500 million) to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi ($94 million). The Senate’s wealthiest was John Kerry ($236 million), but he left to join an even more exclusive club.
How exclusive? Well, it’s about to land a billionaire.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.