Perhaps because my middle name is “Gullible,” I’d like to trust my new representative in Congress to act wisely, unselfishly, and nobly on my behalf. I’d like to trust his 434 brethren and the 100 senators to do so as well. I’d like the lofty words they speak in the wells of the House and Senate to be accompanied by similarly lofty, well-thought-out actions designed solely to improve the lot in life of me and my 312 million fellow citizens.
But … I doubt it. An obstacle lies squarely in the path of politicians’ ability or willingness to act sensibly and selflessly. That obstacle is money. Or, rather, the pursuit of it to grasp and maintain power, prestige, and wealth.
Despite any number of outrageous conflations of influential wealth and influenced legislation, and despite the protestations of the masses with fewer dollars over the power of the few with many dollars, and despite the laughable “reforms” Congress attempts occasionally, money is not going to leave politics.
Wishing won’t make it so. Neither will endless, whining posts by bloggers like me. Money is part of the DNA of politics and will remain so (thanks, in part, to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the “Millionaire’s Amendment” in McCain-Feingold).
“We need transparency,” yell the populists, the progressives, and those just plain pissed off. “We need more disclosure,” they shout.
Sure. Why not. Badger Congress into writing legislation uninfluenced by lobbyists that would produce more transparency and more disclosure of all that money. (Hope the Senate gets around to allowing electronic filing of campaign finance reports …)
That, of course, is unlikely, because so much money is involved — and so much power. Full, easy-to-access transparency of every political dollar means easy-to-access identification of those who may be trading donations for access to legislators. Ditto lobbying expenditures.
The Democratic and Republican parties along their hench-committees — the national committees, the congressional campaign committees, and the senate campaign committees — collected more than $3 billion for the 2008 election cycle — and more than $12.8 billion since 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That does not count fundraising by individual congressional and presidential candidates, which is likely billions more.
Many of our representatives in Congress began their political careers running for statewide offices back home. Well, in 2008, that was pricey, too. Fundraising for all candidates and committees — governors, state House and Senate seats, other statewide posts — exceeded $1.9 billion, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Since 2000, according to the institute’s data, state political races have accounted for $13.1 billion in fundraising.
That’s about $46 billion in political spending in just eight years (and doesn’t count lobbying expenditures aimed at state legislators and state agencies).
Some months ago, I argued that, because the paltry public funding raised through the IRS check-off represented so little money, Congress should add $10 billion a year to the federal budget to pay for every single election in the United States. The public, I argued, must outbid the monied, corporate influence seekers who fund political campaigns in exchange for access to politicians unavailable to you and me.
Well, I must have taken a Phelps-sized bong hit before I wrote that post. The likelihood that Congress would approve public financing of political campaigns so substantial that office seekers would forego any other campaign contributions is damn small. Non-existent, in fact. The lobbyists whose influence depends on infusing money into politics will not let that happen.
Since 2000, lobbyists have spent $20.3 billion to lobby Congress and federal agencies (most notably, regulatory agencies), according to the center.
Sadly, politics operates in a world inhabited by money raised through lobbyists and other influence seekers and peddlers, bundlers, 527s, inauguration committees, state and national party campaign committees, convention committees and, probably, leftover Nixon bagmen.
It’s difficult, too, to tell the difference between a politician and a lobbyist, because they’re often the same person. Revolving Door, a study of the nexus between governing and lobbying by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, found that “17 of 24 former Bush Cabinet members have taken positions with at least 119 companies, including 65 firms that lobby the government and 40 that lobby the agencies they headed.”
It’s not just former executive branch members selling access for profit. Since 2005, 195 members of Congress have fled Capitol Hill for K Street to become lobbyists — and cash in on their access to their former congressional colleagues. And don’t forget the senior congressional staff members that flit back and forth from K Street to Capitol Hill.
Since the early ’90s found former House Speaker Tom DeLay gaming the system to secure and hold GOP power, politics has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. There’s so much money to be made by so many entities, from the broadcasters who sell air time for ads, to political consultants who poll the populace and design the ads, to the companies that provide computers and phones, and even caterers. In the business of politics, there’s plenty of money to go around.
Writes Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post, Feb. 2:
Washington is broken: Lobbyists and special interests have turned our government into a game that only they can afford to play. They write the checks, and the citizenry gets stuck with the bill. Politics is no longer a mission; it’s a business.
All of this is damn disgusting. Plenty of folks are fed up with the role of money in politics. So consider these two points:
1. Money will remain in politics and in fact increase.
2. People are fed up with the behavior of those pouring money into politics and profiting.
At what point will Fact 2 erode the impact of Fact 1? Not soon, argues Mr. Kaiser in discussing President Obama’s pledge to curb lobbyists’ influence in D.C.:
But slowing the revolving door will not be nearly enough to dismantle the Washington culture of money, lobbying and self-dealing that has metastasized over four decades. This culture has created multimillionaires and provided a grand style of life to thousands. It has helped moneyed interests protect their status and privileges, undermined government regulation of business and turned our elected officials into chronic money-chasers. Real reform will require more than presidential fiat.
But consider the failure of former Sen. Tom Daschle’s failed nomination for an Obama Cabinet post because the solon-turned-sinecure was too dumb or too selfish to pay about $140,000 in income taxes on a car service provided by an influential friend. Because of Sen. Daschle’s moronic — or arrogant — mistake, the public learned that his carefully crafted common-man image was merely an artifice.
Consider, too, the similarly errant, stupid tax behaviors of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who failed to pay $34,000 he owed until offered a cabinet job. And the idiocy of Nancy Killefer, “chosen to be the White House chief performance officer, who once had a $900 lien placed on her house for failing to pay unemployment taxes on household help.”
Has the outrageous, callous behaviors revealed of politicians and political wanna-bees cracked the public’s tolerance for business-as-usual Washington, D.C., politics?
Perhaps. But I’ll bet you $46 billion over the next eight years it hasn’t.