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“Polluted Political Games”: Our Entire Money-Based Political System Is Institutionalized Sleaze

I’ve admired the Clintons’ foundation for years for its fine work on AIDS and global poverty, and I’ve moderated many panels at the annual Clinton Global Initiative. Yet with each revelation of failed disclosures or the appearance of a conflict of interest from speaking fees of $500,000 for the former president, I have wondered: What were they thinking?

But the problem is not precisely the Clintons. It’s our entire disgraceful money-based political system. Look around:

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey accepted flights and playoff tickets from the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, who has business interests Christie can affect.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has received financial assistance from a billionaire, Norman Braman, and has channeled public money to Braman’s causes.

Jeb Bush likely has delayed his formal candidacy because then he would have to stop coordinating with his “super PAC” and raising money for it. He is breaching at least the spirit of the law.

When problems are this widespread, the problem is not crooked individuals but perverse incentives from a rotten structure.

“There is a systemic corruption here,” says Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money. “It’s kind of baked in.”

Most politicians are good people. Then they discover that money is the only fuel that makes the system work and sometimes step into the bog themselves.

Money isn’t a new problem, of course. John F. Kennedy was accused of using his father’s wealth to buy elections. In response, he joked that he had received the following telegram from his dad: “Don’t buy another vote. I won’t pay for a landslide!”

Yet Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labor secretary and now chairman of the national governing board of Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group, notes that inequality has hugely exacerbated the problem. Billionaires adopt presidential candidates as if they were prize racehorses. Yet for them, it’s only a hobby expense.

For example, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson donated $92 million to super PACs in the 2012 election cycle; as a share of their net worth, that was equivalent to $300 from the median American family. So a multibillionaire can influence a national election for the same sacrifice an average family bears in, say, a weekend driving getaway.

Money doesn’t always succeed, of course, and billionaires often end up wasting money on campaigns. According to The San Jose Mercury News, Meg Whitman spent $43 per vote in her failed campaign for governor of California in 2010, mostly from her own pocket. But Michael Bloomberg won his 2009 re-election campaign for mayor of New York City after, according to the New York Daily News, spending $185 of his own money per vote.

The real bargain is lobbying — and that’s why corporations spend 13 times as much lobbying as they do contributing to campaigns, by the calculations of Lee Drutman, author of a recent book on lobbying.

The health care industry hires about five times as many lobbyists as there are members of Congress. That’s a shrewd investment. Drug company lobbyists have prevented Medicare from getting bulk discounts, amounting to perhaps $50 billion a year in extra profits for the sector.

Likewise, lobbying has carved out the egregious carried interest tax loophole, allowing many financiers to pay vastly reduced tax rates. In that respect, money in politics both reflects inequality and amplifies it.

Lobbyists exert influence because they bring a potent combination of expertise and money to the game. They gain access, offer a well-informed take on obscure issues — and, for a member of Congress, you think twice before biting the hand that feeds you.

The Supreme Court is partly to blame for the present money game, for its misguided rulings that struck down limits in campaign spending by corporations and unions and the overall political donation cap for individuals.

Still, President Obama could take one step that would help: an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose all political contributions.

“President Obama could bring the dark money into the sunlight in time for the 2016 election,” notes Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “It’s the single most tangible thing anyone could do to expose the dark money that is now polluting politics.”

I’ve covered corrupt regimes all over the world, and I find it ineffably sad to come home and behold institutionalized sleaze in the United States.

Reich told me that for meaningful change to arrive, “voters need to reach a point of revulsion.” Hey, folks, that time has come.


By: Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 28, 2015

May 31, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Donors, Campaign Financing, Lobbyists | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“In The Short Term, Absolutely Nothing”: Are GOP Donors Going To Get Anything In Return For Their Millions?

If you’re a liberal zillionaire who contributed lots of money this year to prevent a Republican takeover of the Senate, on Tuesday you’re probably going to be pretty unhappy. Which is why, Ken Vogel of Politico reports, the people who run the groups through which all those millions are being channeled are rushing to reassure their donors that it was still money well spent. Which got me thinking about the conservative donors who are probably going to be celebrating next week. For some of them, Republican victories are an end in themselves, but others have a more specific agenda in mind. They help Republicans get elected because they expect something in return.

To be clear, I’m not talking about quasi-legal bribery. If you’re an oil company or a Wall Street firm, you donate to Republicans not so that they’ll be forced to do what you want whether they like it or not, but because you know they like it quite well. Republicans want, deep in their hearts, to cut taxes and slash regulations and open up public lands to drilling and all the other things that would benefit their donors. But are they actually going to be able to deliver?

Those investments have been huge. Here are just a couple of details from the Center for Responsive Politics:

Wall Street as a whole has contributed $171.1 million, more than any other industry or interest group that CRP tracks. Of that total, $100.8 million has gone to candidates and party committees, with an overwhelming 62 percent of it winding up in the hands of Republicans and just 38 percent in the hands of Democrats. The remaining money, more than $70 million, went to outside groups, and $45.8 million of that went to conservative-leaning organizations.

But while securities and investment was the top donor industry for GOP candidates, for Democrats the No. 1 slot was occupied by lawyers and law firms. Overall, that was the third-ranking industry this election cycle, giving $66.4 million to Democrats and $28.4 to Republicans through the third quarter.

One grouping new to the top 10 is Environment—a category that includes a number of fairly small-spending groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council. What made the difference this year were contributions from Tom Steyer, a billionaire who made his money in hedge funds; he has contributed $73.7 million this cycle to outside groups, all focused on the environment or aligned with Democrats.

Steyer has said that his goals are long-term—specifically, he wants to elevate the place of climate change in public debate and elect people who will (eventually) do something about it. But if Wall Street has contributed over $100 million to Republicans this year, they want something in return. And what are they going to get? The answer is probably not too much. Republicans have no doubt been telling them, “Help us get elected, and then you’ll see!” But Barack Obama still has a veto pen, and the Treasury Department and the SEC are still staffed by his appointees (not that they’re unfriendly to Wall Street, but they’ll be no more friendly next year than they were this year). Republicans aren’t going to be passing any major legislation—or much legislation at all—that will actually reward their friends, because if the legislation they pass would meaningfully advance conservative goals, Obama would veto it.

But people all over the place may be overestimating just how much change is going to come. Look, for instance, at this article (also from Politico) about how all the K Street lobbying firms are getting ready for boom times:

GOP lobbyists and consultants are strategizing about landing new business and looking forward to advising clients if Republicans take control of the Senate—setting off rapid change in the political dynamics of Capitol Hill.

Several lobbyists said they expect a bump in business in the first half of 2015 when companies look to recalibrate their outside rosters to engage more heavily with Senate Republicans.

“There will be a burst of excitement and activity as a result of that change,” said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who now heads Squire Patton Boggs’ lobbying operation. “There is a lot of pent-up demand in the tax area, infrastructure, immigration, the budget and tax policy.”

Lott said he thinks it will be a shot in the arm to K Street with a much busier legislative agenda.

Lobbyists need legislation in order to do their jobs. They especially like big bills that can be larded with lots of obscure provisions they obtain on behalf of their clients but that few people notice. And these have indeed been lean times—I have one friend who’s been lobbying for years, who told me not long ago that he was considering a career change, because without any legislation going through Congress, his job had become all but irrelevant.

But what the hell is Trent Lott talking about here? Is a Republican Congress going to start passing bills on taxes, infrastructure, and immigration that Barack Obama will sign?

Of course they won’t. What they will do, however, is write, debate, and maybe even pass a lot of bills that are ultimately doomed. Some will get filibustered by Senate Democrats, others may be vetoed. But at least Lott will be able to go to his clients and say that he earned his six-figure monthly retainer, because he got things inserted into bills for them, and it isn’t really his fault if they never actually became law.

And that’s what they’ll get for their millions, at least in the short term: nothing.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, October 31, 2014

November 1, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Donors, GOP, Megadonors | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Republicans Have A Choice”: Their Donors, Their Right-Wingers, Or A Government Shutdown

It looks like the one big(gish) substantive consequence of Eric Cantor’s exit from the House Republican leadership will be the demise of the Export-Import bank. Or at least it looks very likely that John Boehner (who supports the Export-Import bank) will allow its authorization to lapse rather than pick a fight with conservative hardliners in the House.

The fact that the bank’s authorization expires on the same day that federal appropriations expire has analysts wondering whether it will end up at the center of a tug-of-war over funding the government, precipitating a shutdown. And that, in turn, has conservatives salivating over the prospect of “Democrats shut[ting] down the government” to protect corporate welfare.

First, allow me to disclose that I really don’t care very much what happens to the Export-Import bank, which subsidizes U.S. exports with loans and loan guarantees to insure against non-payment by importers. I guess the one convincing argument for reauthorizing it temporarily, or reforming and reauthorizing it, is that it probably is providing a modest boost to the economy at the moment, but generally liberals and hardline conservatives agree, for slightly different reasons, that the bank should go. Establishment Republicans, by contrast, really like the Ex-Im bank, which explains why Democrats are happy to set aside whatever misgivings they might have about it in order to exploit the division within the Republican conference.

That division is also why any talk of Democrats shutting down the government to protect Ex-Im is basically dishonest spin.

I think there’s almost no chance anyone will shut down the government over the Ex-Im bank, but if a shutdown happens, it will come as a consequence of Boehner wimping out, not of anything Democrats might do.

To my mind, there are at least four ways a fight over Ex-Im could play out within a fight over funding the government. Half of them end with the elimination of the Ex-Im bank. Only one ends with a government shutdown, and it would be on House Republicans.

I’ve simplified the processes involved here, for the sake of clarity, but in order of escalating complexity, the scenarios are as follows:

1. The House passes a bill to fund the government and sends it to the Senate, where Republicans successfully filibuster any attempt to reauthorize the Ex-Im bank. Harry Reid caves. Result: Ex-Im bank eliminated.
2. The House passes a bill to fund the government and sends it to the Senate where Democrats and Republicans tweak it to reauthorize the Ex-Im bank, among other things. It goes back to the House, where Boehner “caves” and puts it on the floor. Result: Ex-Im bank survives.

2a. The House passes a bill to fund the government and sends it to the Senate where Democrats and Republicans amend it to reauthorize the Ex-Im bank. It goes back to the House, where Boehner allows a vote on a measure to strip the Ex-Im authorization out of the legislation, but the measure fails thanks to the support of an overwhelming number of Democrats and a large contingent of Republicans. Result: Ex-Im bank survives, Republicans crow disingenuously about how Democrats are the real crony-capitalists.

3. The House passes a bill to fund the government and sends it to the Senate where Democrats and Republicans amend it to reauthorize the Ex-Im bank. It goes back to the House, where Boehner can neither muster the nerve to affirmatively strip the authorization (and anger donors) nor the nerve to put the whole bill on the floor (and anger conservatives). So he does nothing. Result: Boehner shuts down the government, Ex-Im bank in limbo.

4. The House passes a bill to fund the government and sends it to the Senate where Democrats and Republicans amend it to reauthorize the Ex-Im bank. It goes back to the House, where Boehner chooses his speakership over his big business allies, and rounds up Republican votes to strip the authorization out of the bill. The House sends the bill back to the Senate where Reid caves. Result: Ex-Im bank eliminated.

Note, I have baked into these scenarios an assumption that Senate Democrats won’t refuse to fund the government unless the Ex-Im bank survives because most Democrats a) Don’t really care that much about the bank, b) are mainly just interested in exploiting Republican divisions, c) want to make a point to conservative big business donors about the incredibly bad investment they’ve made in House Republicans, and d) aren’t an inherently reactionary bunch like their counterparts in the House GOP.

For what it’s worth, I think option 2a is the kabuki show we’re most likely to see. I think the GOP leadership’s overweening interest in not shutting down the government will carry here, which means scenario 3 is the least likely. But either way, Boehner and Mitch McConnell will have to make some fairly consequential decisions in the next few months.


By: Brian Beutler, The New Republic, June 27, 2014

June 30, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Donors, House Republicans, John Boehner | , , , , , | Leave a comment


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