On Political Books

January/February 2012 The Campaign-Industrial Complex

Political reform will never happen until candidates and donors realize they’re being ripped off.

By Walter Shapiro

Presumably, there was no cash bar.) Every president lives in a cocoon, almost never talking to anyone without an appointment. People who give upward of $18,000 to the Obama reelection effort get as their reward a few minutes of seemingly casual, intimate conversation with the president. The danger of such access, in the popular imagination, is that donors will demand and extract explicit quid pro quos—like fixing a corporate tax problem with the IRS. But that is not the way that American politics has worked since the days of Richard Nixon. The real problem is that the inordinate time spent in the company of rich donors leads a president (Democrat or Republican) to absorb the concerns and worldview of those benefactors. Unlike most Americans, everyone at smallroom Obama fund-raisers has been treated extremely well by the twentyfirst- century economy. As a result, when these donors get a few moments with the president, they are far more likely to urge him to get tough with the deficit and rein in entitlement spending than they are to beseech him to reduce unemployment. This fiscal conservatism comes with the territory, even if big-ticket Democratic donors also worry about global warming, support gay rights, and want to go to the barricades to preserve Roe v. Wade. Since the days of Bill Clinton, I have always been amazed by how many wealthy Democratic donors sincerely believe that presidents treasure their policy advice. Presidents are adept at listening with laser-like eye contact as wealthy donors offer their theories about how America should be governed. Oddly enough, this altruistic policy advice tends toward recommendations like cutting the capital gains tax and lessening the burdens of Wall Street regulation.

This is the moment where I must offer the obligatory and truthful “Yes, Republicans are worse” sentence. But the problem is bipartisan. Indeed, gradually falling under the sway of big-time campaign donors is inevitable when political leaders—whatever their party affiliation or ideology—feel compelled to raise vast fortunes to pay for their campaigns.

Lessig sees the dilemma of democracy in much the same terms that Candidate Obama did in 2008—as a matter of the oversize power of lobbyists over Congress. But in Lessig’s shrewd argument, the problem with lobbyists today is not that they flout the law but rather that they slavishly obey it. The occasional Duke Cunningham (bribes for earmarks) and William Jefferson (cash bribes in the freezer) are the outliers, since Spiro Agnew-style cash corruption is mostly a thing of the past. “Yet when lobbying was this corrupt,” Lessig writes, “perhaps counter-intuitively, its effect was also self-limiting.… Lobbyists and members had to be discreet.” Now that lobbying is tightly regulated, and members of Congress rightly fear an unscheduled visit from the FBI, the entire process is far more insidious. These days, lobbyists prosper not from explicit quid pro quos but from the vague sense of obligation that accompanies campaign contributions and organized fund-raisers. They provide legislative and technical expertise (many lobbyists are former top Capitol Hill staffers or specialists in obscure but lucrative regulatory areas); they fund the leadership PACs that help keep legislators like John Boehner on the golf course; and they provide legislators with the ultimate safety net— the promise of a high-paying job if the voters ever turn rambunctious. In fact, Lessig quotes veteran Tennessee House Democrat Jim Cooper as worrying that too many of his colleagues “now view Capitol Hill as a stepping stone to life as a lobbyist.” Small wonder that when a reelection campaign to the House often costs upward of $2 million (not counting independent spending by outside groups), incumbents are understandably wary of doing anything to antagonize the particular lobbyists who are among their most dedicated fundraisers and, yes, friends. In the twenty-first-century Congress, fund-raising never stops, not even for senators at the beginning of a six-year term or House incumbents who just cruised to reelection by a lopsided margin. Lessig seizes on estimates that legislators spend more than 30 percent of their time dialing for dollars. As he writes, “For two or three or more hours every day, as a member fund-raises, she feels the effect of the ‘votes’ of funders.” This creates a type of tunnel vision, where the only voices a legislator hears belong to the wealthy or lobbyists—or party insiders screaming about the need to raise even more money. It is human nature—if you spend more than twenty hours each week making small talk with the affluent, it is hard not to identify with them and their concerns. Lessig’s dead-on understanding of how Congress fails to work has been shaped by his firsthand experience meeting with legislators as a legal expert arguing against electronic copyright statutes that benefit large corporations to the detriment of innovators. “The most striking feature of these exchanges was not that the members disagreed with me,” Lessig recalls. “It was that the members didn’t understand that there was another side to the issue. They had never heard it.” Three hours a day making small talk with would-be campaign donors cuts into the preparation time for even the most dedicated members of Congress.

Like most books fueled by outrage over our current system of funding campaigns, Republic, Lost loses its momentum when Lessig attempts to find a way to change the money-talks system. His notion is to convert the first $50 that everyone pays in federal taxes into “democracy vouchers” that would be given at the taxpayer’s discretion to candidates for federal office. If everyone participated (and they presumably would, because this would be, in effect, free money), these “democracy vouchers” could yield as much as $6 billion to pay for publicly funded campaigns. This would be enough of a subsidy, Lessig theorizes, that candidates in both parties would agree to accept no more than $100 contributions to augment these vouchers.

Walter Shapiro , a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a special correspondent for the New Republic and writes for Yahoo. He is currently covering his ninth presidential campaign.


  • janinsanfran on February 04, 2012 12:01 PM:

    That just might be one of the most lucid descriptions of what's wrong with our democracy that I've ever read.

    The other constraint that will eventually tend to break up the current system is the spread of niche "information" systems in which we all live in personalized information bubbles. Hard to see how this broadcast model translates to that world.

  • school grants on July 26, 2012 5:05 AM:

    The other constraint that will eventually tend to break up the current system is the spread of niche school grants
    "information" systems in which we all live in personalized information bubbles.