No cash, no campaigns
Posted on May 18, 2010
Originally posted at http://thehill.com/opinion/op-ed/98251-no-cash-no-campaigns
It has become an almost weekly ritual, especially in the Age of Obama.
A major corporation, let’s say Goldman Sachs or British Petroleum, or in days past, Enron or Halliburton, gets into some hot water politically.
The inevitable committee hearings are called, and the major executives of said corporations are brought before the assorted members of Congress and publicly flogged to the satisfaction of the representatives’ staffs and family members and to the titillation of national media.
And as the flogging commences, inevitably, the congressional committees of one side or the other publicly demand representatives return the campaign contributions from the corporations that were publicly flogged.
This same thing happens when a member of Congress gets into legal trouble. It happened to Tom DeLay, to Mark Foley, and to Charlie Rangel and John Murtha. The money they gave to their colleagues is suddenly tainted and must be returned — or else.
The irony is that the campaign committees, usually the ones who are calling for the campaign money to be returned, wouldn’t survive without these campaign contributions.
Most members of Congress have a love-hate relationship with the whole raising-money thing. They hate the time it takes to raise the money. Many of them don’t like to personally ask for campaign contributions, and have to be dragged to the phone.
But they also know that — unless they have a huge personal fortune — without raising money, they might not get reelected, and they won’t rise up in their leadership.
The days when a Bill Natcher could spend $3,000 on a reelection campaign and win easily are long gone. Now, most congressional campaigns cost at least a million dollars, and some cost a lot more. And most members of Congress don’t have huge personal fortunes they can dip into and spend a million dollars per election cycle, and if they did, their spouses would likely tell them to knock it off.
That means, for their personal elections, most members of Congress spend a portion of every day raising money for their own reelection.
But that isn’t the only thing they have to worry about. If they want to rise up through the leadership or be considered for a chairmanship, the incumbents now must raise even more money and give it to their colleagues or to their campaign committees.
They usually raise it through their leadership political action committees, or PACs. It is far more difficult to raise money for a leadership PAC than it is for a personal reelection. Most small donors would never even think to give to a leadership PAC, and many corporations and trade associations have a policy of not giving to them.
That means that many members of Congress have to spend even more time raising money, which means going to the relatively small circle of bigger corporations and trade associations that have such big PACs that they can afford to give to both reelection campaigns and leadership PACs.
These members of Congress or senators aren’t doing anything wrong. They are not only complying with the law, they are complying with the spirit of the law. This is how the system was set up: The system allows for free speech by allowing for limited campaign contributions. And unlike in Europe, the taxpayer (except in presidential campaigns) doesn’t pay for any of these campaigns, because they are privately funded.
And yet we have all seen the attempts by operatives on all points along the political spectrum to make the acceptance of campaign contributions akin to getting political advice from Satan himself.
My experience is that members of Congress are not swayed by campaign contributions in how they vote. Instead, most members care only about how a certain congressional action affects jobs in their district, and vote accordingly.
But campaign contributions certainly help open doors and give corporations and other special interests the chance to make their case, and for some of these companies, that moment can be invaluable in getting their case heard.
Campaign contributions make campaigns possible. Without money, the mother’s milk of politics, there is no way to fund the phone banks, no way to produce the yard signs, no way to make the 30-second ads, and no way to pay the campaign staff.
Maybe it is time for those campaign professionals to lay off those members of Congress who raise money from unpopular corporations. The campaign against campaign cash might ultimately backfire against those who run these campaigns in the first place.