Big money poisons our political system

June 12, 2013

Depending on what survey you read, members of Congress rank on the public favorability scale somewhere between kidney stones and having one’s foot stepped on by a draft horse. There are any number of reasons, including their general inability to enact the sort of legislation that might actually improve the lives of the people they are supposed to represent. But one very big reason, in our view, is that average folks no longer believe they are really being represented by these makers of law. A recent story by Andy Sullivan of Reuters reinforces that position.

Here is how his report begins:

WASHINGTON – For lawmakers in Washington, the daily chase for money can begin with a breakfast fundraiser in the side room of a Washington restaurant.

At noon, there might be a $500-per-plate lunch with lobbyists in a Capitol Hill town house. The day might wrap up in an arena skybox in downtown Washington, watching a basketball game with donors.

In between, there is “call time” – up to four or five hours a day for lawmakers in tough re-election campaigns – in telemarketing-style cubicles a few hundred yards from the Capitol. The call centers, set up by the Democratic and Republican parties, allow lawmakers to chase the checks that fuel campaigns without violating rules that ban fundraising from their offices.

A few things jump quickly to mind:

• It’s little wonder that not much of substance gets done on Capitol Hill, since a large part of our representatives’ time seems to be taken up with raising money to ensure that they get another two years in office, during which they can spend a large part of their time raising money to get another two years in office.

• If Regular Joe stopped by his congressman’s office and wanted to run through his concerns over lunch, how do you think that would be received, particularly if Joe brought along a sack lunch and was not willing to pay $500 for a piece of rubber chicken and a pile of limp green beans?

• Does this whole “call center” business seem unsavory to you?

We would answer “yes” to that last question, an opinion shared by former Rep. Dennis Cardoza of California, who, according to Sullivan’s report, resigned from Congress last year partly because of the constant need to raise money for his re-election campaigns.

Said Cardoza of the call centers: “It smells like a gymnasium locker room after a few hours. It’s awful. It’s like a sweatshop.”

But it’s also productive, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Government, which found that in the last two-year election cycle, the average lawmaker raised $2,400 a day. During that time, House incumbents raked in an average of $1.7 million. That’s about $740 million for all 435 voting members of the chamber.

Our lawmakers can’t pull in that kind of cash by hitting up our friend Regular Joe for $10 or $20. They need the folks with deep pockets, and those wealthy interests aren’t coughing up their money out of the goodness of their hearts. They clearly have an interest in guiding “our representatives” toward supporting legislation that benefits them, whether it be easing their tax burdens or getting rid of some pesky regulations that might, for instance, make our food safer or make it less likely that Regular Joe gets killed on his job.

We’re not breaking any new ground here, but it has become ever clearer that the members of Congress are beholden to those who finance their campaigns, not those who live in the areas they supposedly represent. That we need to get big money our of our political system is crystal clear, but it’s also infinitely easier said than done, because when is the last time you remember our “leaders” voting against their own very narrow self-interest?



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