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Our Corrupt Politics: It’s Not All Money

The fall, in other words, long preceded Stennis’s comments wondering whether a fund-raiser with defense contractors would be proper. And it long preceded Lessig’s timeline for the rise of money in politics, which begins with the 1994 election, when Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives after forty years in the minority, and so both parties, realizing that congressional elections were now competitive, had to enormously increase their fund-raising in order to win. That was, Lessig says, the beginning of “the fundraising Congress,” but the polling shows that trust in government actually rose through the 1990s.

Nor is it clear that more money leads to more power for “the extremists at both ends.” For one thing, the timing doesn’t work. Polarization begins to accelerate in the 1980s, not the 1990s. For another, it simply seems unlikely. If you’re talking about lobbying, or fund-raising, the money is with the corporations. But the biggest employers of lobbyists—the Chamber of Commerce, GE, the American Medical Association, the National Association of Realtors—aren’t interested in endless partisan warfare, and they’re not, themselves, run by hard-core partisans, such as the Koch brothers. America’s corporate class tends toward a kind of elite centrism: they like compromise, and deficit reduction, and technocratic problem solvers. Michael Bloomberg—who has proposed letting all of the Bush tax cuts expire—would win these guys in a landslide. Jim DeMint and Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have a chance of getting their votes.

Conversely, small donors, particularly on the congressional level, tend to be more ideological types. There’s good evidence that legislators who make extreme statements have an easier time fund-raising than those who don’t. When House Republican Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during President Obama’s health care address, he raised $2 million in under a week. The thing about the “sensible middle” is that they, quite sensibly, don’t spend all that much of their time following congressional races, or even politics. So politicians looking for small donors need to find the engaged, invested voters who are actually interested in primary campaigns, and those voters are usually so engaged and invested because they have chosen a side, and done so strongly.

Which isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to get the money out of politics, or to publicly finance elections, or, as Abramoff suggests, to make it impossible for onetime public servants to lobby. But it’s not clear that any set of campaign finance reforms or anti-lobbyist regulations would restore trust in government or ratchet down partisan polarization. Such policies, if they worked, would likely have more modest effects: a bit more trust in government, maybe, and a bit less of a reliance on lobbyists, hopefully.

It’s also the case that Abramoff’s form of corruption and Lessig’s theory of corruption do more to illuminate the workings of small issues in American politics than big ones. In that, they’re like quantum mechanics. Abramoff’s methods are fine for winning favors for small clients, and Lessig’s model goes a long ways toward explaining why politicians might listen when Hollywood signs up some high-powered lobbyists to tighten copyright protections, but neither is much of a help when it comes to the major clashes in American politics. You need a theory of general relativity to explain the big stuff. And that theory is partisan polarization.

Take any issue that you’ve actually heard a lot about. The headline clashes. The big-ticket bills. They’ve all got money on both sides. They’ve all got platoons of lobbyists swarming onto Capitol Hill. They’ve all got activists and interest groups and even ordinary Americans pestering their congressmen. And they all go the same way: the Democrats vote with the Democrats, and the Republicans vote with the Republicans.

That’s true even when the big money lines up in favor of another outcome. In 2011, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO joined together to call for a major reinvestment in American infrastructure. None passed. In 2010, most of the health care industry was either supportive or neutral on the Affordable Care Act, and if any one of them could have swung the votes of even a few Republican senators or congressmen, the desperate Democrats would have let them write almost anything they wanted into the bill. But not one Republican budged. In 2009, the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the stimulus bill as a necessary boost to the economy. Not one House Republican voted for it. Almost every major business group has been calling for tax reform and a big, Simpson-Bowles-like deficit reduction package for years now. But Congress remains deadlocked.

Indeed, the more likely Americans are to have actually heard of the bill, the less likely money is to be the decisive factor in its fate. That’s not to say that lobbyists and interest groups don’t have a hand in the construction of these laws—before they came to a vote—and don’t have a say in the component parts. They do. The health care industry, for instance, was able to cut a slew of early deals with the Obama administration; and the industry’s power helped put out of consideration certain provisions, like a public option that would have partnered with Medicare to bargain down prices. The financial industry, disgraced as it was, managed to win a lot of battles in the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill.

But in the end, it didn’t decide which votes ended up in the “nay” column and which ended up in the “aye” column. The leadership of the two parties did. Which is to say that while moneyed interests are decisive in passing laws and influencing provisions that few Americans care about, they’re much weaker on the issues where Americans are actually watching. But those issues are the ones that have convinced America that Washington is broken. Which suggests that as big a problem as money is in politics—and make no mistake, it is a big problem, as the rise of the Super PACs shows all too clearly—it is not the only one, and it is probably not even the worst one.

Letters

It’s Not All Money’ May 10, 2012

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