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POSTED: April 15, 2009 10:25 a.m.
Recently, Newsweek looked at Federal Election Commission records and discovered the political action committees of five major recipients of federal bank bailout money, it found, made some $85,000 in campaign contributions in January and February, mostly to members of Congress sitting on the committees that oversee their industry.
And why not? This is how business gets done in Washington. In an illuminating, full-page chart, The New York Times recently illustrated the ties between captains of finance and members of Congress in 2007-2008: PAC donations in the millions of dollars from various Wall Street firms, and a web of lines showing personal donations that snaked from their CEOs to various influential lawmakers.
The same could be done with other industries.
In his new book on the chase for political cash, “So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government,” longtime Washington Post editor Robert Kaiser tells a story about the late John Stennis, the legendary senator from Mississippi. In 1982, running for his seventh term, Stennis found himself in a tough race, and was urged by his consultants to raise money from the defense industry he oversaw from his perches on the Armed Services and Appropriations committees. “Would that be proper?” Stennis responded. “Sir, I hold life and death over those companies. I don’t think it would be proper for me to take money from them.”
By the time Stennis uttered those words, Washington was already changing; expressing that sentiment today would immediately get you written off as hopelessly naïve. The political process runs on people and organized interests with money: politicians need it in order to get elected; donors use it to try to get favorable legislation.
It is not at all clear what we can do about this. I don’t fault politicians for raising money to run for re-election. How do you fund a multi-million dollar campaign without such contributions? Yet whether they want to admit it or not, accepting that money puts them under obligation to donors.
We cannot eliminate money in politics, if for no other reason than that doing so would threaten this nation’s obligation to protect free speech. Those who contribute to campaigns have a right to do so to promote their interests. I do wonder, however, who contributes to the common good. We want to make sure we have a system that allows everyone — not just the well-heeled — to express their views to their representatives and have those views treated with equal consideration.
I think the chase for money — demeaning to both candidate and contributor — has gotten so far out of hand that it is beginning to threaten representative democracy itself. And though we still haven’t figured out a cure, that’s not a reason to stop trying to find one.
A step in the right direction is to ensure real-time transparency of donations, so that as they come in, the public can learn about them. This already happens in the U.S. House, where donations must be filed and made available electronically. Astoundingly, though, the Senate has been dragging its heels on this modest reform — when what we really need goes further: a system that gives the voter, with the click of a few computer keys, instant access to charts that line up contributions to members with their votes and earmarks. This is only difficult politically, not technologically.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
 

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