Peddling politics in America

Midterm contributions soar to record levels in 2010, a sign that the US campaign finance system is tainted as ever.

Candidates have set new fundraising records during the 2010 midterm campaign [Reuters]  

Our country is in economic distress. Millions are out of work, and cutbacks in public services are pervasive at the city and state levels.

The ‘great recession’ is deep and could go deeper. Most families are tightening their belts and in some cases are at breaking point because their benefits have run out.

Money is hard to find, perhaps, for the people but, curiously, not for their political representatives – nominal public servants. Despite the fact that popularity for politicians, especially members of Congress, is at an all-time low, campaign contributions are at an all time high.

The Washington Post reports that House and Senate candidates are “on their way to surpassing $2 billion in spending for the first time … the equivalent of about $4 million for every congressional seat up for grabs”.

Think of that number. Think of all the pressing needs in this country and the world, and weep. But also think about why politics is so dependent on big bucks.

Feeding the ‘beast’ 

Some critics believe there is no way to stop these practices.

“Candidates are raising more money in 2010 than ever before, and spending it at a much quicker pace than 2008,” said David Donnelly, director of the Public Campaign Action Fund’s Campaign Money Watch project.

“With all the attack ads, candidates have to spend more time dialing for dollars and less time talking with voters. They have to feed the beast – the endless raising and spending for campaigns – that is devouring our democracy.”

Donnelly adds, “Regardless of the outcome next Tuesday, the winners will be the big donors.”

There has been a big debate this year about the role that corporations, and to a lesser degree, unions, have played in financing campaigns.

The recent Citizen United Supreme Court decision makes it legal not to disclose where the money is coming from. It’s been said that business is taking over politics.

As Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money, writes:

“When tens or hundreds of millions of dollars are targeting these midterm elections and our votes, but their origin is unknowable, one has to wonder whether someone isn’t trying to pull a fast one on us.

“OK, so we get a disclaimer naming the coalition that runs an ad. Maybe that disclaimer names a group with some vague, innocuous-sounding moniker. Or it’s a group signaling that it has many ‘citizens’ or ‘Americans’ behind it. However, these groups often have no publicly known members, donors or contact info.”

Selling influence

Many are up in arms about the latest wave of “secret money,” some perhaps from overseas, including charges in one race in Washington state that Saudi nationals are involved.

Climate Action Network Europe released a new report revealing the effects of Big Business trying to weaken US environmental laws: “Big European emitters … supported climate change deniers in the US Senate in 2010 for $107,200 … This amount is higher than the same type of spending of the most notorious US climate denier and Tea Party funder: Koch Industries ($217,000).”

Overlooked in all the hoopla is the fact that American politics has itself become a business with a vast network of professional fundraising companies, consultants, advisors and ad agencies profiting from the services they provide.

The politicians don’t just hire others. They spent much of their own time “dialing for dollars,” as one congressman I know well told me.

“Sometimes I just want to quit,” said my college friend. “I didn’t come to Washington to become a beggar, but that’s what I do, harassing people I don’t know and don’t know me to give. Every Member does it because we all live in fear of the other party funding a primary race or buying ads to discredit us. We have to be ready to fight back.”

Candidates also have to kick back portions of their largesse to fund their own parties, helpers and bureaucracies.

Many seem to see the campaign trail as a fundraising trail, speaking for fees and generating media visibility that they then can monetize with direct mail solicitations.

In some cases, donors and lobbyists and well-funded think tanks even do legislative work by helping draft bills and orchestrate the political agenda. These “donations” of time are not considered contributions and are not reported, making the cost of maintaining the political establishment much higher than funds raised in political contributions.
This focus on raising money often undermines time spent on raising awareness, which in turn leads to a reliance on being guided by polls, not convictions.

No wonder this has been called “the best election money can buy”. Donors and the recipients of their largesse are not naïve. They know that when a politician takes money, there is an expectation of some quid pro quo. This money may not buy the politicians outright but only rent them for a key vote or two.

Politics as usual
Politics is about the never-ending fight over the allocation of resources, deciding what gets funded in the federal budget and then who gets the contracts. It is far more about serving interests than ideology or constituents.

Millions of jobs are at stake in federal allocations and most companies have separate divisions, with plenty of former politicians on the payroll to help them win contracts through what is euphemistically called “public affairs.”

All want to be insiders, but, to achieve that status, they need access to politicians to do their bidding, to set up meetings, make key introductions and win business that is always rationalized in terms of the jobs, never the profits, that are generated.

On the day that the latest political fundraising report was published, Afghan president Hamid Karzai admitted to having received “bundles of cash” from Iran.

The story seemed so crude, so “Third World”, so corrupt. Until, that is, you look closely at US politics as an industry in which checks and electronic transfers are routine and make it easier to move money around so you don’t need paper bags to carry them.
A few days after this disclosure, news reports said $18 billion in Afghanistan reconstruction aid to American companies cannot be accounted for.
That’s first world corruption with a capital C.

Danny Schechter, made the film Plunder The Crime of Our Time about the financial crisis as a crime story (Plunderthecrimeofourtime.com) and blogs for Mediachannel.org.

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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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