Back to the 'Bagman'

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter

With all the secret cash flowing into politics, we're returning to the days when powerful interests could buy influence without any way to trace it.

Let's be honest: all the talk about money in politics is tiresome. DNC, RNC, DCCC, RSCC--it's inside stuff. Democrats are spinning their losses by pointing to a last-minute influx of corporate money; Republicans retort that Democrats should stop whining because they spent more money overall, and look where it got them. Everyone's pointing out that the richest candidates (e.g., Meg Whitman) don't always win. Liberals say they're disappointed in President Obama for failing to transform the system. But even the most Feingoldian of them couldn't be bothered to make the biggest systemic issue, campaign finance, into something voters cared about.

So now we're returning to the bad old days when powerful interests could buy politicians without any way to trace it. If the lame-duck Democratic Congress doesn't enact the DISCLOSE Act, which requires outside groups to reveal the names of their biggest donors in TV ads, the 2012 campaign will be about as transparent as a Chinese sovereign-wealth fund.

Almost no one under 60 remembers what fundraising was like before Watergate. Until the 1970s, campaign money was collected by "bagmen," familiar characters from the world of organized crime. As fans of Boardwalk Empire know, a bagman is a political fixer who walked around with stacks of $100 and $1,000 bills. At lower levels, he used brown paper bags. In presidential campaigns, the cash was more likely to be in briefcases. Classier that way.

Today, it's Back to the Bagman. With the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, outside groups can pump as much money as they want into campaigns. Republicans always point fingers at unions, but their donations--and those of any large donors to the parties and their authorized committees--are disclosed. It's the corporate and individual giving to outside groups that's undisclosed and, therefore, the functional equivalent of cash. "The U.S. is due for a huge scandal involving big money, bribery and politicians," Al Hunt of Bloomberg News wrote recently.

This year corporations used latter-day bagmen like the Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, and other outside groups to secretly spread nearly $300 million in key races. Rove got huffy after Obama warned that foreign money was seeping into American politics, but it's hard to believe it isn't. …