With crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff having been sentenced to six years in prison for fraud, it’s a good time to step back and look more deeply at the role of money in politics. Evidence suggests that the Jack Abramoffs of the world are a distraction from the real problem.
Certainly the Abramoff scandal has focused badly-needed attention on instances of quid pro quo between politicians and donors—the granting of legislative favors in return for big donations. But a key question has not been asked: To what degree does the source of a politicians’ money actually affect overall policy, especially on major issues.
To understand the role that private money plays in our elections, it’s important to understand what I call the “pyramid of money.” Party leaders such as Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—as well as the vast majority of incumbents from both parties—don’t need to spend very much on their reelections, since they represent districts that are one-party strongholds.
This is not so much due to redistricting abuses as it is to the noncompetitive nature of winner-take-all elections resulting from red and blue partisan residential patterns. You cannot draw a competitive district out of Pelosi’s overwhelmingly liberal San Francisco district no matter how you carve it. It turns out that most legislative districts are like that—naturally tilted for one party or the other.
Nevertheless, party leaders and incumbents in safe seats continue to raise huge amounts of money, ostensibly for their own reelections. Why? Not because they’re in danger of losing their own races, but so that they can funnel the money into party-building activities—especially financing colleagues running in the small number of hotly-contested races each year. This in turn buys them influence among their peers, along with appointments to powerful committee leadership positions. Each party’s Big Money Kings and Queens sit at the top of the Pyramid, directing the flow of money to the tight races, hoping to win a majority of seats for their team.
The rest of the safe-seat incumbents—along with lobbyists, lawyers, and allied PACs and donors—fill out the lower levels of the Pyramid, funneling money into the system, where it is directed by party leaders. It’s a well-oiled operation, with lots of give and take between the different levels of each party.
Indeed, comments by former House majority leader Tom DeLay reveal the extent to which the lobbyists and special interests today play their subordinate role in the Pyramid, following the lead of political leaders instead of vice versa. Said DeLay, “No one came to me and said, ‘Please repeal the Clean Air Act.’ We say to the lobbyists, ‘Help us.’ We know what we want to do and we find the people to help us do that.”
The case of lobbyist Jack Abramoff illustrates the point. Abramoff, who pled guilty to influence peddling and bribery, was not involved in activities that affected major policy areas. All of the Abramoff-related scandals involved the lobbyist receiving favors from legislators—including favors from DeLay—for himself and his business clients in exchange for large donations and perks for legislators. DeLay got what he wanted—large donations to grease his political machine—and Abramoff got what he wanted—personal favors for his businesses and clients. They scratched each other’s backs, each playing their respective roles in the Pyramid.
So the Pyramid is the problem, much more than the quid pro quo. The quid pro quo is repugnant, but only a symptom of the bigger picture. Jack Abramoff and his ilk are hardly the reason that Tom DeLay and the GOP pursue certain policies. Major policy directions are driven by the dynamics of the Pyramid, with its one-party fiefdoms and Kings and Queens sitting on top—who have the power and influence to control the policy directions their parties take.
Certainly there are notorious examples of riders attached to bills because some quid pro quo occurred between a donor and a powerful political leader. But such riders usually are a small percentage of overall policy and legislation, and most of the time such a blatant quid pro quo affects the donor’s personal business situation, not major policy areas—an important distinction.
What this means is that even with strong campaign finance reform, breaking up the Pyramid will be very difficult to do as long as we are using a winner-take-all system where most legislative seats are lopsided one-party districts, and invincible incumbents with no worries about reelection can funnel their campaign funds to party leaders sitting atop the Pyramid’s labyrinth.
If we don’t understand the dynamics of how our political system works, we will miss the mark when we try to reform it.