"Money On My Mind" is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author, (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters or Common Cause), and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
The scandals involving Congressman Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon and others mean that in the near future we will learn the lurid details of shameful political quid pro quos, money laundering, shake-downs, betrayal, and deception. To date, DeLay has been indicted in the Texas state court system charged with money laundering. It is alleged that he illegally funneled $190,000 in corporate contributions to the Republican National Committee and to seven Republican state legislative candidates. Scanlon has pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a member of Congress, and Abramoff has confessed that as a lobbyist he defrauded four Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars, money that was used to finance a variety of Republican political activities. He also admitted that he evaded taxes and enticed government officials with bribes. As this case unfolds we will learn more about the relationship between DeLay and Abramoff, and how representatives of textile firms on the Mariana Islands, Indian tribes with gambling interests, and Russian tycoons paid millions of dollars to well-connected political operatives like Abramoff, who in turn handed much of this money to the majority party. In exchange, powerful members of Congress, including DeLay and Bob Ney, Chair of the House Administration Committee, used their positions to repay the donors.
Congressional rules already stipulate that members cannot accept gifts valued at more than $100.00. But that limit does not apply when lobbyists raise money for organizations masquerading as charitable or educational entities, but in fact serve as conduits to party bank accounts. In these fundraising activities the role of intermediaries like Abramoff has been critical. His job was to tell clients how much it would cost them for their needs to be serviced and to inform them of the specific front organization to which they should make their contributions. Paid for in the same way were joyriding overseas junkets in the guise of on-site congressional investigations and luxury boxes at football games.
This scandal reveals the “pay to play” system at its worst. It is a system deeply subversive to even the most elementary notion of a functioning democracy. In it, politics is covert, promising political gain for the few who can afford to pay exorbitantly to influence legislation. Totally subverted is the ideal of a democracy in which equality of influence prevails and the content of legislation is publicly debated on its merit.
Not surprisingly, Abramoff defends himself by saying that he did not create the system in which “eventually money wins in politics.” And it seems that, at least until his confession in court, Abramoff took pride in his work. In an interview with Michael Crowley of The New York Times Abramoff bragged, “We never lost.” Stabbing the table to punctuate each word, he shouted “We. Did. Not. Lose. One. Fight. Ever.’”1
No doubt there is an element of exaggeration here, but the point is well taken. “Pay to play” is the everyday content of Washington politics. Again quoting Abramoff, “there are probably two dozen events and fund-raisers every night. Lobbyists go on trips with member of Congress, socialize with members of Congress – all with the purpose of increasing one’s access to the decision-makers.” Furthermore, this system is growing exponentially. According to The Washington Post, “influence peddling” is one of the country’s great growth industries. Spending on federal lobbying has increased from $1.6 billion in 2000 to $2.1 billion in 2005.2
Over and above the subversion of democracy that “pay for play” represents, a new malignantly anti-democratic variant of the system, referred to as the “K Street Project,” has made an appearance in recent years (K Street is the location of most lobbying firms in Washington). There is an unapologetic requirement that in order to gain entry to the world of contributions and favors, lobbyists have to be members of the Republican Party. As early as 1995, Congressmen DeLay was telling lobbyists, “If you want to play in our revolution you have to live by our rules.” In fact there was only one rule: lobbyists had to be registered Republicans and support the policies of the party. No surprisingly, all observers agree, “K Street is becoming solidly Republican.”3
At the moment there is a mad rush among both Republicans and Democrats to offer reforms as a way to distance themselves from the scandal. The problem is that neither side is offering suggestions that will put an end to the Washington money game. At best they will tighten up the rules on what members of Congress can and cannot accept. But “pay for play” is not fundamentally about the petty corruption that occurs when someone pays for a congressperson to attend a Washington Redskins football game in a luxury box. That is small potatoes compared to what occurs when lobbyists collect and donate enormous sums of money that find their way directly or indirectly to party candidate bank accounts. That is where the big money lies and that is where our politics is most distorted.
Nothing is wrong with lobbying for a cause. But that should not be confused with the rampant practice of lobbyists trying to influence legislation by making political donations. The first is and should be constitutionally protected; the second makes a political system of equality an impossibility. We won’t solve “pay to play” until we shift from a political system fueled by private money to one in which office-seekers have the option to run for office as publicly funded candidates.
1. Michael Crowley, “A Lobbyist in Full,” The New York Times Magazine, Published May 1, 2005. http://select.nytimes.com
2. Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, “The Road to Riches is Called K Street
,” The Washington Post, June 22, 2005. http://www.washingtonpost.com
3. Nicholas Confessore, “Welcome to the Machine: How the GOP Disciplined K Street
and Made Bush,” Washington
Monthly, July/August 2003. http://www.washingtonmontly.com/features/2003/0307.confessore.html