22 March 2016

Money and politics. And money.

Did I mention money?  Here are some excerpts from a new book, Nation on the Take:
Not too far from the Capitol Hill townhouses are the call centers that both Democrats and Republicans use to dial for dollars. Endlessly.

This is how Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, described it: “We sit at these desks with stacks of names in front of us and short bios and histories of giving . . . and we make calls to our faithful friends and ask them to give money or host a fundraiser.”..

How much time do our elected representatives spend trying to collect money from wealthy people? Roughly 50 percent. One former congressman, Tom Perriello (D-VA), told reporter Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post that even that may be “low-balling the figure so as not to scare the new members too much.”

This feverish fundraising begins even before a freshman gets sworn in. After former representative Walt Minnick, a conservative Democrat from Iowa, won his first election to Congress in 2008, he took just five days off before heading back to the phones...

The sad truth is that given the frenetic search for money in federal congressional elections,
there simply isn’t enough time in the day to stay competitive in campaign finance and do the actual job of policy making . . . I remember when I was first elected to Congress, I and many other House members would often go down to the floor of the House of Representatives and just listen to the debate. I may not have had an amendment to the bill or a particular interest in the issue but I always felt that watching policy discussions and witnessing the crafting of laws was an important part of my day. It gave me the chance to educate myself and interact with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Today most lawmakers would tell you that any free moment not used raising dollars is time wasted.
This theme of members of Congress not being able to commit time to doing the increasingly complicated job of examining and deeply understanding legislation comes up over and over again. It’s not just driving them nuts, it’s also driving many of them out of office, and it’s deterring good people from even thinking about running...

Of course, not all the fundraising occurs in dreary call center cubicles and trade-association-owned townhouses in D.C. As the New York Times investigative reporter Eric Lipton chronicled in 2014, “destination events” have become all the rage. Republicans join lobbyists and business executives for spa weekends in Las Vegas and ski trips at the Four Seasons resort in Vail. Democrats join lobbyists and business executives on the Ritz-Carlton’s private beach in Puerto Rico and on quail hunts in Georgia...

President Obama hasn’t exactly been a champion of reform, either. Despite some of his strong rhetoric—for instance, his statement at a White House press conference in 2013 that “There aren’t a lot of functioning democracies around the world that work this way, where you can basically have millionaires and billionaires bankrolling whoever they want, however they want, in some cases undisclosed”—he has failed to champion the cause. For instance, despite repeated requests from Common Cause and more than fifty other organizations, President Obama (as of the writing of this book) has been unwilling to sign an executive order requiring that all companies receiving federal contracts disclose their political spending...

We wish we could claim that coin-operated government exists only at the national level. Sadly, that’s not the case. Just as the influence industry has mushroomed in Washington in the last two decades, influence peddlers and political operatives have sought new ways to accomplish their agendas at the state and local levels...

An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that just fifty individuals and organizations—from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to the Democratic Governors Association—steered $440 million to state candidates and parties in 2014. Eighty-five percent of candidates who got donations from one of those fifty donors won.

Giving directly to state candidates, who raked in $1.2 billion in 2011– 2012, is often easier than giving to federal candidates, who can face tougher donation limits. Six states allow limitless giving directly to candidates, and another six have only slight restrictions. Data show that in states like California, Georgia, and South Carolina, all of which have high contribution limits, elections are less competitive. By contrast, elections in Maine, Arizona, and Minnesota, all of which have some form of public financing, are typically much more competitive...

Super PACs are also getting involved in city council and even school board elections across the country. A super PAC called the Committee for Economic Growth and Social Justice filed papers in Washington and promptly sent more than $150,000, funded largely by the bail bond industry, to unseat several members of a school board in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
There's much more at Salon.  I'm not sure I have the willpower to approach the book.


  1. Who owns who...


  2. We do not have a democracy. We are governed by the highest bidders. How can we change this? I don't know. But I fear for our country.

    1. No, we have an oligarchy and crony capitalism that feed each other.

    2. We can change it very easily by disallowing secret and/or big money contributions- Bernie Sanders has already shown it both possible and feasible. Women got the vote, segregation was outlawed. Yes, easier said than done- but it is simply a matter of will. As long as the US of A continues to worship its one true god, The Almighty Dollar, nothing will change.

    3. @Stan B.: The problem is twofold. Most Americans aren't even aware of the real problems facing this country and can't be bothered to pay attention long enough to learn. The second problem is that many that are aware still worship at the altar of The Almighty Dollar and have no problem with the fact that the system is rigged as long as they have the delusion that they can magically one day be the ones to rig it ("make America great again!"). The handful of those that are left have to face the waves of ignorance and greed to try and fix it. It's exhausting with a real chance of being swept away.

  3. Two year terms are simply too short. Half of the two years is campaigning, even without this need to pimp for money.

    The Founding Fathers screwed up with that. If Congressmen's terms were 4 years and Senators 8 years, the campaigning period would drop from 50% to 25% for House members, and from 17% to 13% for Senators. They could stagger the Senators so half come up every four years. But ALL compaigns then would coincide with a Presidential election, asssuring much higher voter turnout.

    In 2010 (off year), 96 million voted.

    In 2012 (presidential), 132 million voted.

    In 2014, (off year) 92 million voted.

    A FORTY million voter difference!

  4. BTW, I looked at the Census.gov numbers recently and put them into a spreadsheet, to play with it. I found out something ASTOUNDING:

    In 2012 nationwide, the turnout for REGISTERED VOTERS was 86.68%. That is basically 7 out of 8. If people were registered, people VOTED. Only 1 out of 8 didn't.

    In Colorado, nearly 95% of registered voters DID vote. TEN states turned out 90% or better. NINETEEN states turned out 89% or better.

    The problem is getting people registered. Red states are slightly higher in non-registration, but not a lot. In fact, Kansas had the lowest non-registration level, 15.8%.

    But some states just don't register people well. Hawaii (surprisingly for me) was worst, with 41.1% not registered in 2012, even though of those that did 87.75% did vote, slightly above the national average.

    1. Assuming there is no firm data, what is your gut opinion re the reason people don't register to vote? Intrinsic personal laziness, or structural/institutional impediments to registration?

  5. There's a lot of rhetoric about the virtues of competition, but that logic isn't typically applied to Congressional districts. "Gerrymandered", which should be scandalous, does not excite the imagination. I propose that we begin to call them "monopoly districts", on the premise that we'd all be better served by competitive elections.

    1. This is what I find curious about this incessant chase for money. Most districts are not competitive. An interesting piece in the New York Review of Books added that almost no Republican fears the general election: their only concern is a challenge in the primary from the right, often funded by megadonors. Al Franken estimated that 90% of his Republican colleagues believe in man-made global warming, but dare not deviate from establishment orthodoxy lest they get a primary challenge from the right.

    2. The purpose of a huge war chest is to keep the districts non-competetive. If you're considering running and have to go up against someone with a $3 million campaign chest, you're going to think twice because you need to raise that much in a much shorter period of time.

  6. The solution may seem counterintuitive - we need to add more representation. We have 1 congressman for about every million people. That is way, way, way too high. When our country was founded, it was closer to 30,000.

    If we had 7,000 or so representatives, not only is there a better chance of better representation (since it would be more fine-grained), but it would be harder to "buy them off" - certainly more expensive. Plus, when they have to campaign to just 50,000 or so people, they won't need as much campaign money.

    1. That's the most interesting thought I've read all week.

      The difficulty, of course, would be to have appropriate districting without gerrymandering for special interests. But I suppose if the special interest representative was one of 300 representatives in a state, his/her influence would be less important.

      Very thought-provoking comment. Thanks.

  7. In political science, there is a formula--the cube root of the population is the ideal number of representatives (if I recall). We more or less froze our numbers around the civil war, but grew exponentially. (And before then, of course, women and blacks were not represented.) It is in the work of Rein Taagepera.


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