Only in Washington — a city of feigned myopia and faux morality _ could a front-page headline like this be printed and be taken for news, not satire.
“A Growing Wariness About Money in Politics,” informed the headline in Tuesday’s Washington Post.
A growing wariness? That insight ran on a piece labeled “analysis” that accompanied the day’s biggest news story: A Republican congressman from California, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, resigned his House seat, tearfully confessing his guilt to federal charges that he had conspired to take at least $2.4 million in bribes for helping campaign contributors and others get military contracts. Among the bribes the blubbering congressman accepted were a Rolls Royce, a yacht and another fine seat that he may not have surrendered: a 19th Century Louis-Phillippe commode.
Now, even by Washington standards, Duke Cunningham’s gilded booty call was beyond the pale (see also: beyond the pail). So too are the unrelated excesses of lobbyist Jack Abramoff (an old pal of indicted former House Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas) and his PR-man sidekick, Michael Scanlon. They are being investigated for obtaining $89 million of dollars from Indian tribes; as are a half dozen or so lawmakers who dealt with them.
But make no mistake: Money indeed buys _ or, more accurately, rents _ politics in the nation’s capital. Consider, for starters, the opening paragraph of that Washington Post analysis _ and then we’ll look at how Washington really works.
“For several years now, corporations and other wealthy interests have made ever-larger campaign contributions, gifts and sponsored trips part of the culture of Capitol Hill,” the Post analysis began. “But now, with fresh guilty pleas by a lawmaker and a public relations executive, federal prosecutors _ and perhaps average voters _ may be concluding that the commingling of money and politics has gone too far.”
May have gone too far? Only in Washington do people talk like that. Only in Washington, do people think that the abuses of money and politics are something new. The pols populi _ and the scribes who cover them _ don’t admit/see the hard truth of what is really happening when the senators and representatives dial for dollars each day. They view it as an acceptable business as usual. But it is the legal solicitation of bribes. And it has been happening in the same way for decades, despite well-meant reforms.
Here is what happens in Washington, ever day: Senators and representatives leave their congressional offices and go to nearby party-run fund-raising offices that are just a hop, skip and a loophole away. (Because soliciting campaign contributions on federal property is illegal, these offices are on private property.) The legislators telephone lobbyists who represent special interests regulated by their committees and subcommittees _ and solicit campaign contributions. No quid pro quo is spoken. (That could be construed as soliciting a bribe.) Then again, none is needed. Every player knows how the game is played.
The Game: Senators and representatives concede, in interviews, that what lobbyists get for their campaign money is, at least, access. The opportunity to meet with a member before a crucial vote.
But here is how the system looks from the lobbyists’ end: “When the telephone rings and a member of Congress is calling for money, it feels just like being on the receiving end of a legal shakedown,” says one Washington lobbyist, who agreed to speak candidly, but not for attribution. “I know I have to give him money _ just to make sure I can get in the door and into his office later, when I will really need to talk with him. So I know when the phone rings and it’s a member who’s on one of (our industry’s) committees or subcommittees, that I’ll be writing out a check.”
Journalists usually call that check a “contribution.” But that’s the wrong word. It is an “investment.” Big business or big labor or big activists invest money in politicians for the same reason we make any other investment: Because the investment will produce grand profits. In this case, huge profits in the form of a special waiver or loophole slipped into a bill or (more commonly) a rarely noticed regulation. A special interest’s investment in a senator or representative can produce profits worth millions, even billions, of dollars.
Of course, nothing will change that short of a full-fledged system of public financing of congressional campaigns. And of course, public financing won’t happen. It is not in the financial interest of the special interests. And it is not in the political interest of the solicitous incumbents who get re-elected by making capital happen in the capital city. Just by dialing for dollars.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)