Magazine article Multinational Monitor

End Legalized Bribery

Magazine article Multinational Monitor

End Legalized Bribery

Article excerpt

It is a wonder they don't spend more.

For business people looking for bang for the buck, political contributions represent a sure-fire return on investment. Relatively small amounts invested in the U.S. political process often result in policy changes of enormous consequence to individual companies or entire industries.

This may not be bribery in criminal law terms, but it is something awfully close.

And even the bribery label does not fully capture the systemic and pervasive corrupting influence of money on the political process. Individual examples highlight how crude the quid pro quo may be, but they don't illustrate the broader and profound degradation of the democratic process.

Money first affects who chooses to run for office. At the federal level, running a credible race for the House of Representatives requires at least a half million dollars, and in most cases closer to one million dollars. This de facto requirement tends to filter out those who don't have rich friends or a willingness to consort with, buddy up to and support positions favored by the wealthy. At the same time, it tends to attract to the race those who themselves can invest huge sums in electoral politics, since federal campaign finance limits do not apply to personal spending.

Although there is nothing inevitable about it, money then affects the nature of the campaign. The campaign industry flocks to well-funded candidates, doling out conventional wisdom -- most of it wrong -- about voter preferences on economic questions. (Opinion polls demonstrate the electorate is much more populist-inclined than centrist-obsessed consultants suggest.) Campaign consultants direct candidates to pour their money into television ads (and take a cut of the money spent on TV commercials). The emphasis on TV tends to turn the campaign away from grassroots mobilization -- another bias in favor of corporate interests.

And money does affect outcomes. Those who raise and spend more tend to win, though there is of course not a perfect correspondence between dollars spent and votes won.

Once in office, the payback to major contributors is typically described as "access." Members of Congress return the calls of major donors (often, they're making the calls!) -- something that is certainly not true for most constituents.

But "access" does not capture all the benefits afforded major contributors. Elected officials routinely check with big donors on legislation that would directly affect them. On these matters, votes against their major donors are rare. If a big contributor finds itself hassled by a regulatory agency, it goes to its friends in Congress and looks for help in curtailing regulatory vigor. When a major contributor wants a provision inserted into a tax bill, they know where to turn. …

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