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Political fundraising has completely transformed our electoral process. As Lindsay Mark Lewis and Jim Arkedis explain in their new book, Political Mercenariesthe 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.

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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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Rep. Bennie Thompson

Photo by Customs and Border Protection (Public domain)

Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) Friday afternoon announced the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack has issued subpoenas to 14 Republicans from seven states who submitted the forged and "bogus" Electoral College certificates falsely claiming Donald Trump and not Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election in their states.

The Chairman appeared to suggest the existence of a conspiracy as well, noting the "the planning and coordination of efforts," saying "these so-called alternate electors met," and may know "who was behind that scheme."

Keep reading... Show less

Chris Cuomo

News Literacy Week 2022, an annual awareness event started by the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to making everyone “smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy” has closed out. From January 24 to 28, classes, webinars, and Twitter chats taught students and adults how to root out misinformation when consuming news media.
There’s no downplaying the importance of understanding what is accurate in the media. These days, news literacy is a survival tactic. One study estimated that at least 800 people died because they embraced a COVID falsehood — and that inquiry was conducted in the earliest months of the pandemic. About 67 percent of the unvaccinated believe at least one COVID-19 myth, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It’s not that accurate information isn’t available; people are rejecting reports of vaccine efficacy and safety because they distrust the news media. A third of Americans polled by Gallup said they have no trust at all in mass media; another 27 percent don’t have much at all.
Getting people to believe information presented to them depends more on trust than it does on the actual data being shared. That is, improving trust isn’t an issue of improving reporting. It’s an issue of improving relationships with one’s audience.
And that’s the real news problem right now; some celebrity anchors at cable news outlets are doing little to strengthen their relationships with their audiences and a lot to strengthen their relationships with government officials.
The most obvious example is how CNN terminated Prime Time anchor Chris Cuomo last month for his failure to disclose the entirety of his role in advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the sexual harassment accusation that unfolded in Albany, a scandal that eventually led to Andrew Cuomo’s resignation.
But there are others. Just this month, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol revealed that another anchor on another cable news network, Laura Ingraham of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows last January, advising Meadows how Trump should react to reports of possible armed protests at state capitols around the country. This revelation followed the story that Sean Hannity, host of the eponymous news hour at Fox News, also texted Meadows with advice last year.
And while he didn't advise a government official, CNN anchor Don Lemon revealed information not available to the public when he texted embattled Empire actor Jussie Smollett to tip him off about the Chicago Police Department’s wavering faith in his story about an assault. That’s from Smollett’s own sworn testimony.
When English philosopher Edmund Burke joked about the press being the Fourth Estate — in addition to the First, Second and Third (the clergy, nobility and commoners, respectively) — his point was that, despite their influence on each other, these “estates” — bastions of power — are supposed to be separate.
The Fourth Estate will always be an essential counterweight to government. But, since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, we’ve been so focused on stopping an executive branch from pressing the press to support an administration's agenda — either by belittling journalists or threatening to arrest them for doing their jobs — that we’ve ignored the ways that it affects and influences other Estates, and not necessarily through its reporting.
That is, we have news personalities-cum-reporters who are influencing government policy — and not telling us about it until it’s too late.
The United States has fostered an incredible closeness between the Second Estate — which in 2021 and 2022 would be political leaders — and the Fourth Estate. About a year ago, an Axios reporter had to be reassigned because she was dating one of President Biden’s press secretaries. Last year, James Bennet, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times and brother of Colorado Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Michael Bennet, had to recuse himself publicly from the Gray Lady’s endorsement process. In 2013, the Washington Post reported at least eight marriages between Obama officials and established journalists.
To be clear, there aren’t any accusations that anyone just mentioned engaged in anything other than ethical behavior. But I, for one, don’t believe that James and Michael Bennet didn’t discuss Michael’s campaign. I don’t think the Axios reporter and her West Wing-employed boyfriend — or any journalists and their federally employed spouses, for that matter — didn’t share facts that the public will never know. Such is the nature of family and intimacy.
And as long as those conversations don’t affect the coverage of any news events, there’s nothing specifically, technically wrong with them. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t damaging.
As these stories show, when we don’t know about these advisor roles, at least not until someone other than the journalist in question exposes them, it causes a further erosion of trust in news media.
What’s foolish about the Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon improprieties is that they don't necessarily need to be the problem they’ve become. Cuomo’s show contained opinion content like 46 percent of CNN’s programming. An active debate rages on as to whether Fox News is all opinion and whether or not it can rightly even be called opinion journalism since its shows are so studded with inaccuracies and lies.
What that means is that Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon are allowed to take a stand as opinion journalists; Cuomo and Lemon never really worked under a mandate of objectivity and Ingraham and Hannity likely wouldn’t honor it if they did. Indeed, a certain subjectivity — and explaining how it developed for the journalist — is part of an opinion journalist’s craft. To me, little of these consulting roles would be problematic if any of these anchors had just disclosed them and the ways they advised the people they cover.
But they didn’t. Instead, the advice they dispensed to government employees and celebrities was disclosed by a third party and news of it contributes to the public’s distrust in the media. While personal PR advisory connections between journalists and politicians haven’t been pinpointed as a source of distrust, they may have an effect. Almost two-thirds of respondents in a Pew Research poll said they attributed what they deemed unfair coverage to a political agenda on the part of the news organization. No one has rigorously examined the ways in which individual journalists can swing institutional opinion so it may be part of the reason why consumers are suspicious of news.
Cleaning up ex post facto is both a violation of journalistic ethics and ineffective. Apologies and corrections after the fact don't always improve media trust. In other credibility contests, like courtroom battles, statements against one’s interests enhance a person’s believability. But that’s not necessarily true of news; a 2015 study found that corrections don’t automatically enhance a news outlet’s credibility.
It’s a new adage for the 21st century: It’s not the consulting; it’s the cover-up. Journalists need to disclose their connections to government officials — up front — to help maintain trust in news media. Lives depend on it.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.


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