The once blissful in their ignorance are now forced to reckon with reality. Even the least political among us have to recognize the collapse of our economy, the forsaken justice and the blatant corruption within our government. So, where does it all begin? Are good politicians arriving in Washington only to be corrupted or are corrupt politicians arriving in Washington? I contend that the election process does a successful job of weeding out most people of integrity and basically screens candidates for their ability to be manipulated by money. After all, the average winner of a U.S. House race in 2008 spent about $1.4 Million. The Senate? About $8 Million. I suspect that an untold number of promises must be made to motivate enough people to separate from that amount of money. Think about it, even when Joey borrows his uncle’s car, he is told that he can as long as he washes it. Human nature is one of exchanging favors. As veteran Washington reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum points out, “a run for the presidency…starts with the approval of the fund-raiser class.” The success of this wealth-friendly filter is reflected in the fact that the median income of our federal legislators in 2009 was $911,000, with senators averaging an amazing $2.38 million.
Nancy Pelosi told This American Life that she participated in more than 400 fundraising events in 2011, a pace of more than one per day. Imagine how much worse you’d be at your job if in addition to normal duties you spent hours each day raising money to keep it. Advocates of campaign-finance reform often talk about the undue influence that money has on politics, and that is certainly a significant problem. But the amount of time legislators spend asking for money rather than doing their job is itself problematic.
Lawmakers of both parties need to raise millions of dollars per election cycle. So lobbyists get calls from lawmakers and their staffs all the time, inviting them to fundraisers, according to Jimmy Williams, a former lobbyist for the real estate industry. “A lot of them would call and say ‘Hey … can you host an event for me?’” Williams says. “You spend most of your time dodging phone calls.” We imagine the lobbyist stalking the halls of Congress trying to use cash to influence important people. But it doesn’t always work that way. Often, the Congressman is stalking the lobbyist, asking for money.
Although lobbying is not illegal, you would think that it is by the way so many try to avoid defining themselves as lobbyists. In fact, lobbying reform legislation has been introduced in Congress to increase transparency, and the President continues to talk about the issue. Under current law, lobbyists can avoid registering if less than 20 percent of their time is spent contacting lawmakers’ offices or if they make fewer than two contacts for a client in one quarter. All of these nuances create unnecessary loopholes and do not accomplish the goal of transparency. It should not make any difference if you work in house or not, or if you have one contact or one hundred in a quarter, or if you spend 5% of your time or 95% of your time lobbying, if you are paid to lobby, you should register to lobby.
Even the executive office is pandering to a constant flow of big donors through the White House. Approximately two-thirds of the president’s top fund-raisers in the 2008 campaign visited the White House at least once, some of them numerous times. Some of the donors had no previous record of giving to the president or his party, or of making donations of such magnitude, so their gifts, sometimes given in close proximity to meetings, raise questions about whether they came with expectations of access or were expressions of gratitude. As for those tough anti-lobbyist rules that President Barack Obama promised early in 2009, they included a built-in loophole for “special access” which is not to be confused with lobbying.
Civil service employment should be based on merit, ability and a dedication to creating a government that promotes the common good, not on how many people with money you can get to give you their money. There is not a shortage of people to fulfill these roles, there is a system in place that actively prevents these people from participating. For example, why don’t you run for public office? I, for one, certainly don’t want to sell my soul to campaign contributors – and then continue begging for money throughout my career. To restore true democracy of, by, and for the people — not campaign funders — we need the Fair Elections Now Act, a system of citizen-funded elections in which small donors’ contributions are matched for candidates who agree to use the system and only take small contributions. This gives a voice to the millions of Americans who are currently being drowned out by unaccountable billionaires and corporations with their super PAC “megaphones.”