A bribe, according to Merriam Webster, is “money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust.”
In defense of campaign contributions, we are told that a candidate has a set of positions, and donors find candidates whose positions align with theirs and support them financially. Thus, contributions are a form of free speech, agreement between donor and politician. It doesn’t influence votes. Ergo, it’s not a bribe.
Here are a few reasons that rationale doesn’t hold water:
First, it ignores all the new, ambiguous decisions that will arise during a term. When considering their options, politicians will be influenced to keep the donor’s backing in succeeding campaigns.
Second, if the rationale is true, anonymous donations would create the same outcome; but, it fact, candidates know their donors, and donors want to be known. Why? That gets us to the last reason.
How do businesses justify using the stockholders’ money to back certain candidates? It’s because they expect something in return, and that’s hard to do if you’re anonymous.
Candidates are searching for money. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee gave their entire freshman class a suggested schedule that showed 40 percent of their time each day should be spent raising money. I’m sure Republicans have a similar number.
Have you ever received one of these calls? I haven’t. My representatives can’t spend their limited “call time” asking for my meager donations. They’re calling those who give big donations, the donor class.
Beyond the candidate’s solicitation, there are those who want to give candidates financial support. We have nearly 12,000 registered lobbyists (many more if we include unregistered influencers) chasing 535 national senators and representatives, and they spend more than $3 billion a year doing it.
Lobbyists represent the interests of particular citizens, corporations and industries, and are protected by the constitutional right to petition government. By definition, all these lobbyists are trying to influence Congress to support their viewpoint, and they are awash with money.
Let’s review the bidding. A requirement for any candidate seeking office is to raise enough money to produce a viable campaign. To do that, candidates must constantly call big donors or take calls from lobbyists; and to get their money, one must be aligned with the donor’s views by the end of the call.
This essentially means that there is an election before the election, a donors’ primary, that defines the slate of candidates that appears on the ballot. A tiny fraction of 1 percent of the population is defining for whom we can vote.
So, in the crudest terms, we are getting to vote only for those people who represent the interests of a very small group of Americans.
How does this play out? Let’s take the tax code. At nearly 4,000 pages, it is filled with rules and regulations that are technical and arcane. It stays that way because there are interests who care about the status quo and benefit by particular tax exclusions. Thus, rather than write new tax policy, a simpler policy, a fairer policy, Congress instead passes extensions that keep things just as they are, making donors happy.
A Johns Hopkins survey, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reports 70 percent of respondents (including the majority of NRA members) supported bans on military-style semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, yet nothing happened! This appears to be a donors-before-voters decision.
The Citizens United Supreme Court case opened the floodgates to even more money in political races. By way of explanation, the Supreme Court said that, despite all the money, the American people “have the ultimate influence over elected officials.” But in Federalist Paper 52, Madison was clear in saying that the House of Representatives was to be “dependent on the people alone.”
The Supreme Court said we get to be the last deciders, but the Founding Fathers thought we should be the only deciders.
Given our campaign financing rules, it’s easy to understand that candidates, even those who want to be independent, will quickly learn that pleasing donors and getting elected are closely coupled.
How can we get Congress to support legislation that moves the U.S. in the direction the people want, if their first allegiance is to the donor class? Furthermore, of the 412 who left the 111th and 112th congresses, 304 (73 percent) are now working on K Street as lobbyists for 10 times the salary. That looks suspiciously like a reward for good behavior.
Does anyone not see that a campaign contribution is a bribe wearing a cheap wig and a false mustache?
— By Richard Kamischke, Tribune community columnist