The ever-widening Jack Abramoff scandal gives Americans a glimpse of just how the money game is played in politics but influence peddling goes far beyond one disgraced lobbyist.
Money, someone once said, is the mother’s milk of politics and our elected officials have been sucking on the tits of political motherhood for a long, long time.
I know. I was one of those who bought and sold politicians. For five years, I ran the political programs division of the giant National Association of Realtors, an 800,000 plus member association with a multi-million dollar political action committee that could lavish incredible largesse on elections.
In 1988, we gave the maximum contributions allowed by law to 432 out of 435 Congressional races and every Senate race contested that year. We spent another $1.7 million on “independent expenditure” campaigns that helped determine the outcome of three Senate and four Congressional races.
The Realtors were a feared political force, an 800-pound gorilla that could muster money and manpower in any state or congressional district.
In 1987, a member of the House Ways & Means Committee casually mentioned to one of our lobbyists that they were considering repealing mortgage interest tax deductibility, a sacred cow to the real instate industry. So we went into the district of every member of the committee, buying massive amounts of drive-time radio ads saying:
“Did you know Congress is thinking about repealing one of the major benefits you get from owning a home – the right to deduct the interest you pay on your mortgage on your taxes? We don’t think that’s good for you or America and we bet you don’t either. If you agree, why not call (insert name of Congressman) at (phone number) and tell them to oppose repeal of your benefits of home ownership.”
We booked two weeks of airtime but pulled the ads after just three days because the chairman of the committee called our chief lobbyists and said “call off the dogs. This sucker is dead.”
Of course, we argued the value of tax deductibility as if it were some divine right, saying it contributed to America’s ranking as the country with the third-highest per capita home ownership in the world while never mentioning that the first and second countries (Canada and Australia) did not allow deduction of mortgage interest for tax purposes.
Having that kind of power is Washington is a heady experience and, for too long, I got caught up in the adrenaline rush that comes from successfully buying votes and support. But a six-figure income and a power-tripping lifestyle could not stave off the realization that what I and others did subverted democracy and corrupted the process of government.
Democracy is not served by fatcat lobbyists and associations who buy access through large campaign donations, lavish trips for elected officials and other gifts. Likewise, electing, and re-electing, those who seek and accept such things in exchange for support and votes bastardizes the process.
Although I rationalized my involvement in big money politics with dismissive fake justifications like “I didn’t make the rules, I just play the game,” the sad fact remains that I was just as guilty of helping corrupt the very system that should serve the voters, not the well-heeled politically connected.
In 1989, I debated Congressman Guy VanderJact, chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, at a campaign forum on the effect of money in politics.
“As far as I’m concerned, political action committees are just a bunch of whores,” VanderJact said.
“There’s something wrong with that analogy,” I responded. “Where I come from, whores aren’t the ones who pay. Whores are the ones with their hand out, asking for money in advance for a service they are only, at the time, promising to deliver. I think that when you pay out money under such circumstances, the very best you’re ever going to get is screwed.”
It made a nice sound bite but it doesn’t erase the fact that when you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas and I’m itching like hell.