Thursday, February 04, 2010

Following the Money

I've touched on the role of money in politics, particularly the recent dismal performance of the Senate. Lawrence Lessig offers a much more thorough exposition on the subject.
This is corruption. Not the corruption of bribes, or of any other crime known to Title 18 of the US Code. Instead, it is a corruption of the faith Americans have in this core institution of our democracy. The vast majority of Americans believe money buys results in Congress (88 percent in a recent California poll). And whether that belief is true or not, the damage is the same. The democracy is feigned. A feigned democracy breeds cynicism. Cynicism leads to disengagement. Disengagement leaves the fox guarding the henhouse.

This corruption is not hidden. On the contrary, it is in plain sight, with its practices simply more and more brazen. Consider, for example, the story Robert Kaiser tells in his fantastic book So Damn Much Money, about Senator John Stennis, who served for forty-one years until his retirement in 1989. Stennis, no choirboy himself, was asked by a colleague to host a fundraiser for military contractors while he was chair of the Armed Services Committee. "Would that be proper?" Stennis asked. "I hold life and death over those companies. I don't think it would be proper for me to take money from them."

Is such a norm even imaginable in DC today? Compare Stennis with Max Baucus, who has gladly opened his campaign chest to $3.3 million in contributions from the healthcare and insurance industries since 2005, a time when he has controlled healthcare in the Senate. Or Senators Lieberman, Bayh and Nelson, who took millions from insurance and healthcare interests and then opposed the (in their states) popular public option for healthcare. Or any number of Blue Dog Democrats in the House who did the same, including, most prominently, Alabama's Mike Ross. Or Republican John Campbell, a California landlord who in 2008 received (as ethics reports indicate) between $600,000 and $6 million in rent from used car dealers, who successfully inserted an amendment into the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act to exempt car dealers from financing rules to protect consumers. Or Democrats Melissa Bean and Walter Minnick, who took top-dollar contributions from the financial services sector and then opposed stronger oversight of financial regulations.

The list is endless; the practice open and notorious. Since the time of Rome, historians have taught that while corruption is a part of every society, the only truly dangerous corruption comes when the society has lost any sense of shame. Washington has lost its sense of shame.

As fundraising becomes the focus of Congress--as the parties force members to raise money for other members, as they reward the best fundraisers with lucrative committee assignments and leadership positions--the focus of Congressional "work" shifts. Like addicts constantly on the lookout for their next fix, members grow impatient with anything that doesn't promise the kick of a campaign contribution. The first job is meeting the fundraising target. Everything else seems cheap. Talk about policy becomes, as one Silicon Valley executive described it to me, "transactional." The perception, at least among industry staffers dealing with the Hill, is that one makes policy progress only if one can promise fundraising progress as well.
I can't really argue that "whether that belief is true or not, the damage is the same." But, although ceding the extremes of cynicism to CWD, I don't see much of a basis for giving the worst offenders in Congress the benefit of the doubt.


  1. "I don't see much of a basis for giving the worst offenders in Congress the benefit of the doubt" - I'm not sure you can refer to them as the "worst offenders" when you are talking about conduct common to over half . . .


  2. It's a logarithmic curve. It's not that the average offender isn't bad. It's that the worst offenders shoot off the chart.


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