May 5, 2003

The Real Corruption in Campaign Finance

By: AF Editors

In McConnell v. FEC, the case that examined the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation, federal District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly began her 706-page share of the sprawling 1,600-page opinion by quoting from several politicians and scholars regarding the dangers of corruption through private contributions to political campaigns. She cited Elihu Root, who said, “The idea is to prevent . . . the great aggregations of wealth from using their corporate funds, directly or indirectly, to send members of the legislature to these halls in order to vote for their protection and the advancement of their interests as against those of the public.” And there was former Sen. John Bankhead (D-Ala.), who proclaimed, “We all know that money is the chief source of corruption.” Judge Kollar-Kotelly reads these quotes to support “carefully tailored legislation addressing corruption or the appearance of corruption inherent in a system of donor-financed campaigns.”

The proponents of campaign finance reform, like the McCain-Feingold law, look at corruption in the same way that Judge Kollar-Kotelly does, namely that private donors are corrupting politicians through a form of bribery by way of contributions to political campaigns. While no one has been able to produce any evidence of a federal lawmaker changing their vote in exchange for a campaign contribution, Judge Kollar-Kotelly pointed to evidence of “influence” from big donors, quoting former Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) for the assumption that “[the access and influence accorded large donors] is inherently, endemically, and hopelessly corrupting.”

In other words, just the fact that a politician might treat a big donor differently from a non-donor, even though there’s no evidence of the politician actually having their voting on laws affected in any way, is enough for there to be an “appearance of corruption” large enough to warrant limiting campaign contributions.

But it seems to me that this view of corruption misses the more obvious source of corruption in the system: the power of politicians. Contrary to Sen. Bankhead’s assertion, power is far more corrupting than money could ever be, and members of Congress wield huge amounts of power over whole industries. Congress can pass laws that make or break companies by granting billion-dollar contracts, imposing stifling regulations, limiting legal liability, blocking off imports from overseas competitors, create monopolies, and so forth.

And politicians are not shy about throwing that power around for campaign contributions. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), in a 2001 op-ed for The Washington Post, described fundraising as, “The aide would get the ââ?¬Ë?mark’ on the phone, then hand me a card with the spouse’s name, the contributor’s main interest and a reminder to ââ?¬Ë?appear chatty.’ I’d remind the agribusinessman that I was on the Agriculture Committee; I’d remind the banker I was on the Banking Committee.”

In other words, “Hello. You make your livelihood in an industry that I have a lot of power over. Would you like to make a donation?”

This is reminiscent of old mob tactics, where the crime boss sidles up to the local shop owner, takes a look around, and remarks casually, “Nice little business you’ve got here. It would be a real shame if something bad should happen to it.” The shop owner gets the picture and forks over the cash. Only we don’t think it’s the shop owner who’s corrupting the mob boss. It’s extortion. But when Sen. Miller tells the banker that he’s on the Banking Committee, Judge Kollar-Kotelly worries that the senator is being corrupted by the banker’s campaign contribution? That’s doesn’t figure.

Sen. Miller complained that after a day of fundraising he always felt “like a cheap prostitute who’d had a busy day.” That’s funny, because it was the “marks” on the other end of the line that were getting screwed, not him.

Not to mention that it is certainly possible for a politician to receive gobs of money and not be corrupted one bit. Politicians, like everybody else, have political causes and beliefs that they adhere to. A contribution, no matter how large, from a group or person with the exact same beliefs cannot possibly be said to be “corrupting” that politician. Instead of trying to change a politician’s vote, the contributor wants the politician to not change. And truly, the vast majority of campaign contributions are of this flavor.

There is the reasonable concern that nobody wants politicians to care only about what those with money want, and that’s where voting comes in. The affluent produce a rather small number of votes compared to everyone else, so a politician must respect the views that will net a majority of the votes or else be denied the power of office. The “influence” that campaign finance reformers worry about is really little more than a sorting mechanism: Politicians are bombarded with thousands of requests, and they give a bump in the queue to requests from contributors–as well as voters in their districts, of course. That doesn’t mean they’ll vote in favor of whatever the contributor wants, and that’s the crucial thing. Is the queue-bump itself really “corruption?” That’s a very tough sell.

Meanwhile, the McCain-Feingold legislation bumped up hard money contribution limits from $1,000 to $2,000 per person. Your congressman might give you a call, saying it would be a real shame if you didn’t start contributing at the new limit, because then he may decide to vote to knock it back down again. You wouldn’t want that, now would you? Fork it over.