Saturday, November 14, 2009

Best government money can buy

I got on my soapbox today over at the Daily Beast.

I was outraged over what has, sadly, become increasingly typical — our elected representatives being bought and paid for by lobbyists who represent special interest groups and corporations that most definitely do not have the nation's interests at heart.

In particular, according to the New York Times (you will need to get a free account to view the article),
"The lobbyists, employed by Genentech and by two Washington law firms, were remarkably successful in getting the statements [they drafted] printed in the Congressional Record under the names of different members of Congress.
"Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points — 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists.
...
"In recent years, Genentech’s political action committee and lobbyists for Roche and Genentech have made campaign contributions to many House members, including some who filed statements in the Congressional Record. And company employees have been among the hosts at fund-raisers for some of those lawmakers. But Evan L. Morris, head of Genentech’s Washington office, said, “There was no connection between the contributions and the statements.”

This reminded me of two scenes from 'The Aviator'. In one, aviation pioneer and associate of Howard Hughes, Jack Frye asks, "So you want me to bribe senators?" to which Mr. Hughes responds, "I don't want them bribed, Jack. I want it done legally. I want them bought."

It is this sort of mentality that really gets at the heart of corruption in politics. It isn't legal to bribe public officials, but it has been legal to wine and dine them. And in spite of some regulations to eliminate this, some of it still takes place. A great deal of money can also funnel into a would-be career politician's campaign coffers from private contributions.

While there has been some regulation to reduce the size of contributions, most notably the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 which limited the amount of money an individual could give per election, lobbyists and politicians have managed to utilize loopholes that allow things like "bundlers" who organize groups of people to donate the max amount, effectively providing thousands or even millions of dollars of contributions from one group with specific interests.

The purpose of all this donating is, of course, to get the person elected that you believe will represent your interests. It's understandable when some hard-working, average citizen donates 5, 10, 20 or even 100 dollars because he or she believes the politician will help enact some legislation that will make their lives a little better. Say what you will about the naivete of this, but that is what is supposed to happen. But when dozens or even hundreds of upper-middle class or wealthy-class people involved in one industry get together at some private party to give their $4800 donation, one has to wonder just what they expect to get for their money.

In another scene from 'The Aviator', Republican Senator Brewster (played by Alan Alda) is discussing business with Pan-Am founder Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin). Jaun wanted his company to have a monopoly on international air travel. He suggests to Senator Brewster that it's time to introduce a piece of legislation that would create this monoply, to which Senator Brewster asks Jaun, "Is it written?" It doesn't get much more blatant than a corporation writing a bill which a senator or congressman can then sign his name to. 

What is perhaps most disturbing of all is that, in order to hedge their bets, these corporations and organizations often give financial contributions to both candidates in a campaign. Whoever wins, they've got an IOU. And the American public? Well, we get screwed.

Clearly we desperately need major campaign finance reform. Obviously a great many corporations, organizations, lobbyists and politicians who benefit from this legal bribery system don't want it to be undermined. Unfortunately, there is also a political ideology embraced by libertarians and conservatives that financial contributions are "free speech". It's beyond me how money represents "speech", but one thing is for certain, there is no constitutional protection of bribery. But, that's what they're arguing. And so as if it weren't bad enough that those of us who want to clean up corruption in government have to fight off the rich, powerful and influential, we have to fight off the convoluted logic of ideologues as well.

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