Political fundraising has completely transformed our electoral process. As Lindsay Mark Lewis and Jim Arkedis explain in their new book, Political Mercenaries, the majority of money in politics comes not from ordinary voters, but from a select group of millionaires and billionaires with hefty financial stakes in the business of government — and far less interest in the greater good.
Sadly, there are no easy solutions. The excerpt below addresses the inevitability of wealthy donors and why the influence of money in elections will only get worse from here.
You can purchase the book here.
I walked into Dick Gephardt’s fundraising machine in June of 1992. I walked out of the Democratic National Committee as a departing national finance director in late 2005. In all those years, I watched the part-time fundraising required to run for Congress move to a full-time occupation. I watched campaigns for Congress go from costing well under $500,000 to $1.5 million, and often much more. I’ve raised—or helped raise—over $200 million myself. I watched the grassroots donors on both sides of the partisan aisle create a new need for partisan warfare. Most important, I helped a few wealthy individuals with narrow concerns hijack the Democratic Party, demanding the attention of its politicians and altering its agenda.
After all those years and dollars, I’ve constantly asked myself how to limit the role of money in politics. Good government reformers have offered a slew of answers.
Should Congress write a law banning lobbyists from contributing? The John Roberts Supreme Court — as it did again with McCutcheon v. FEC, just days before I wrote this — will kindly remind you about defending free speech and that contributing political money does not equal bribery.
Should we limit contributions to, say, $100? That sounds all nice and clean, except you will put all the power in the hands of the big employers and big membership groups, like large companies and unions. Employ 100,000 people, and you can ask them in their “free time” to contribute $100 to a political action committee because a certain member of Congress is just so damn good for America. Get just five hundred to pony up and you have produced a hefty $50,000, enough to give the maximum to five members. Do that a few more times, and your company could run a House committee that controls legislation that pertains to your business. But if you employ just fifty people? Good luck.
And good luck getting Congress to write either law.
Maybe we need a constitutional amendment limiting political money? Good luck there too. The process is so daunting — two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate or two-thirds of state legislatures — that it’s just a pipe dream.
Rather than worrying about limiting money, focus on the other aspect: time. Time is money, right? If you can’t control the money, then control the time.
Consider the options a member of Congress has to raise money: from lobbyists, corporate and union political action committees, national rich donor networks, grassroots online donations, and super-PACs supporting them. Raising money from each is time consuming in its own way.
Raising money from the lobbyist and PAC community might be more transactional — politicians take a check and might be lobbied — but it’s time consuming, as members must attend fundraising events every night. It’s certainly out of control, but not for the reasons most people think. Lobbyists aren’t buying votes; the relationship is the exact opposite most of the time. Members of Congress have become adept at figuring out the campaign value of proposed legislation. They don’t talk about it, and they certainly don’t mention it back home.
Proposing damaging legislation puts fear into industry leaders. It’s the most sure-fire way to raise money. These bills don’t get very far in the legislative process. That’s because lobbyists rush to cut checks to every member on the relevant committee. The press, President Obama, the general public all reverse blame by holding out lobbyists as the evil actors in this process.
They are wrong. Raising money off damaging legislation has become basic economics. Congressional committees with fundraising potential have grown in size over the past twenty years. Congress is the same size, of course, but the number of members who sit on the Ways and Means Committee, Financial Services Committee, and Appropriations Committee has increased dramatically. Why? Because they can raise money by serving on committees. A member of Congress can vote on a bill, then walk down the street to a fundraiser and collect a check related to the vote. Members couldn’t do that if there was a time-based restriction on raising money when Congress was in session.
What about those wealthy donor networks around the country? The problem is time spent coddling them. Raising money from a rich billionaire is not as simple as picking up the phone and asking for a contribution. That just doesn’t work. Members of Congress call these people, travel around the country to see them, and take weekend trips with them. They do a lot with a very few select individuals who can write big checks and bundle checks from others.
The time members spend with these people gives them leverage. It is no longer about one wealthy person helping a candidate because the donor believes in the candidate. This relationship has been reversed as well. Now members of Congress believe they need these wealthy donors. Members believe they need to know donors, they need to care about what they care about, they need to be a champion of the donors’ priorities.
SuperPACs play mostly at the presidential level, just as I saw starting with the Howard Dean campaign in 2004 and as the country has seen since in the 2012 election. They play the outsider game and change the party’s agenda to fit the needs of their patrons. There are fewer SuperPACs focused on congressional races, and most of the SuperPAC money for congressional campaigns is raised by a few members of each party’s leadership, which, of course, takes time, and plays into the hands of elite billionaires controlling the party’s agenda in an unaccountable fashion.
Why not try to raise exclusively from the grassroots? That shouldn’t take much time, right?
The idea had so much potential. The basic concept of millions of people giving to the cause because they believe in something was what kept me going in my dark days. It was the holy grail of clean elections. Except that it wasn’t. In order to raise grassroots money on the large scale, you have only one choice: scare people, be obnoxious, throw bombs. And that takes time too.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.
From Political Mercenaries by Lindsay Mark Lewis with Jim Arkedis. Copyright © 2014 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
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