Sunday, December 01, 2013

It’s the System Stupid – Part I

Back in the olden days, 1992 to be specific, the political commentator and Democratic strategist, James Carville, presciently summed up the forthcoming presidential election by creating what is now an axiom: “It’s the economy stupid.” Currently, viewing our existing election system of fundraising, one that I view as convoluted, complex and corrupted, the new wording that applies to that adage is cited in the above headline. Come to think about it however, the more accurate choice of words (as you will read below) would probably be, “It’s the money stupid.”

Why money? Well let’s examine the official qualifications for running for a seat in the U.S. Senate; they are quite simple as preserved in the Constitution: at least nine years of citizenship, at least 30 years old, and live in the state you wish to represent. These days, however, there is a much more important and realistic (unofficial) component. In fact, as a potential candidate, if you are not recognized as competent to fulfill this requisite, as the saying goes, fuhgedaboudit!

Not Just Money, Big Money

In 2012, the average successful Senate campaign cost some $10.5 million. The cheapest race (in Maine) cost $3 million; the most expensive (for Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts) cost $54 million. Collecting just the average, means that the winning Senate candidates needed to raise an average of $14,351 every day between Jan. 1 2010 and election day 2012. House candidates have an easier job since the winners had to raise an average of “only” about $1.7 million or $2,315 per day. These days, when running for office, be it the highest in the land, probably down to dogcatcher, money is king. So, how is this money raised?

“The amount of time that members of Congress in both parties spend fundraising is widely known to take up an obscene portion of a typical day––whether it's ‘call time’ spent on the phone with potential donors, or in person at fundraisers in Washington or back home.”

That was part of an article in the January issue of The Huffington Post, shortly after the 2012 election. Apparently, the Post obtained a PowerPoint presentation to newly elected freshmen by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shortly after the election that described “the dreary existence awaiting these new back-benchers.”

The New Rules

The presentation essentially laid out what was expected of these freshman congressional electives: 1) Four hours a day were to be used specifically for “call time.” (That’s the euphemism for begging for campaign funds, or, using the title from a 1940’s and 50’s TV show, Dialing for Dollars). 2) It was suggested that one hour a day be set aside for attending fundraisers (more money gathering) and charming the press. 3) Three to four hours would be designated to do the actual work that voters assume legislators work at, such as attending hearings, voting, and meeting with constituents (hopefully some of them donors). 4) One hour for rest and recharging (and possibly for wondering why you wanted this job in the first place.)

Thus, in a ten-hour day, it is assumed that half the time will be spent on raising money. And don’t think that the Party powers that be won’t be looking at fund raising success rates. The presentation assured members that their “fundraising would be closely monitored.” Unfortunately, money has become the life’s blood of every political campaign. For some of the more naïve newly elected, seeing and hearing the emphasis placed on fund raising might have been an unsettling wake up call.

In the general public’s mind, Congressional members are supposed to be professional legislators, not sales and marketing professionals. But that’s the result of the “system” alluded to in the above headline, one that voters are only vaguely aware of. Yet what is truly puzzling, even bizarre, both the politicians and the lobbyists recognize that they are held captive in a system they regard as distasteful at best, repugnant at worst.

The Game Goes On

National Public Radio (NPR) effectively unmasked the unsavory game that our voting system has spawned in a long broadcast on March 30 th of last year. One of the participants, who can certainly be regarded as an expert on the subject, is the Majority Whip, Dick Durbin, second in command of the US Senate. In a remarkably candid statement, he said, “I think most Americans would be shocked––not surprised, but shocked––if they knew how much time a United States senator spends raising money. And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money. And, you know, going off on little retreats and conjuring up new ideas on how to raise money.”

The NPR program also exposed the fact that politicians abhor the constant pressure to chase after lobbyist dollars, yet they must do so to insure they are not outspent by their opponent. On the other hand, lobbyists are compelled to contribute to politicians not only to satisfy the agendas dictated by the special interests they represent, but also to defend against competing interest groups who are also contributing money.

This combination of mutual self interests results in lawmakers and their staffs working the phones, trying to find lobbyists to organize fundraisers. These are popular since they are a more efficient way of collecting money. However, a long-time lobbyist on the program comments that these calls have become overly prevalent. “A lot of them would call and say, ‘Hey, can you host an event for me?’ And you never want to say no. Actually, no. You always want to say no. In fact, you always want to say no. But, you could look on your phone with these caller IDs and you would be like, really? I'm not taking that call.” The interviewer asked, “Oh, so you would dodge calls for fundraising?” The lobbyist replied, “Oh yeah. Every lobbyist does. Are you kidding? You spend most of your time not taking calls.” Apparently neither politicians nor lobbyists enjoy working the system.

Where the Money Goes

In addition to these factors, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, the cost of elections keeps rising. In 1986, it cost $753,274 (in 2012 dollars) to win a House race, $1.6 million in 2012. Senate races cost considerably more, $6.4 million in 1968, whereas last year’s races, were up to $10.3 million. Consider this: There are over 12,000 registered lobbyists working in Washington, with the most influential representing corporations like pharmaceutical giants, agri-business, finance/banking and defense. It is estimated that lobbyists in Washington spent $3.5 billion in 2010.

Which politicians get most of that treasure? The NPR program answered: “And if you become a chairman of a powerhouse committee, an A committee, like Ways and Means or Energy, you pull in over $1 million more. Like Congressman Barney Frank [who was also a participant on the program]. He became a leader on the Financial Services Committee in 2003 and saw his fundraising skyrocket.” He admitted, “People would come to see me and pay for the privilege of doing that.”

During the interview Congressman Frank was just that––frank, very frank. Perhaps that’s because he is retiring from Congress this year. Here is how he answers some questions about the fundamentals of “the system.”

Q :What does the money buy? What are corporations and special interest getting in return for the billions of dollars they spend lobbying each year?There tend to be two views on this. If you're cynical, you think money buys votes, pure and simple. Washington is owned. Money drives everything.But lobbyists and politicians will sometimes tell you the opposite. Money has no effect. After all, they say, there's always two sides, and both are giving––exporters versus importers, bankers versus realtors, businesses versus unions. The money cancels itself out.

Frank: People say, “Oh, it doesn't have any effect on me.” Look, if that were the case, we would be the only human beings in the history of the word who, on a regular basis, took significant amounts of money from perfect strangers and made sure that it had no effect on our behavior. That is not human nature.” WOW! A Congressman giving an honest answer? However, he then mitigates that, saying the following: “If the voters have a position, the votes will kick money's rear end any time. I've never met a politician––I've been in the legislative bodies for 40 years now––who, choosing between a significant opinion in his or her district and a number of campaign contributors, doesn't go with the district.”

But then there’s this rebuttable by an interviewer: “But the fact is, most legislation, your district doesn't care about. The stuff that makes the news is a tiny fraction of what Congress actually does. They're deep in the weeds of tax law and business code and replacing the ‘and’ in subsection b of title one with an ‘or.’ Things most voters have no opinions on. The only people who do care, or who even understand what that small print means, are the lobbyists and the industries and interests they represent.”

Here’s The Big Question

Rising fundraising costs for winning elections mean more phone calls, so those 12,000 lobbyists, most with bulging wallets, are great targets and fair game for politicians desperate for campaign funds. That raises an issue covered by a NPR interviewer. Told by a long time congressional insider, now a lobbyist (the same one mentioned above), that phone calls from politicians are “dodged“ all the time, to the point where lobbyists deliberately don’t take a phone call they know will be some type of request for funds. The interviewer expressed this reaction: “This was one of the most surprising things I learned about this whole process. The way most of us generally think about it is absolutely backwards. We imagine the lobbyists stalking the halls of Congress, trying to influence members with cash. But more often than not, it's the reverse––the member is stalking the lobbyists, saying, ‘Hey, can I have some of that money?’”

Wait a minute! Does that imply that the politician is the real aggressor? That would mean the unthinkable. It would flip the process from a system of legalized bribery to one of legalized (dare I say the E word?) one of legalized extortion.

Back in 1938, Cole Porter wrote a song for one of his musicals titled At Long Last Love. It was subsequently recorded by Frank Sinatra and became a big hit. The opening lyrics were:
Is it an earthquake or simply a shock?
Is it the good turtle soup or merely the mock?
Is it a cocktail, this feeling of joy?
Or is what I feel the real McCoy?
So, which is the real McCoy, bribery or extortion? The details will be laid out for you in next month’s Viewpointe, and you can make your own decision.


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