Editorial: Big money drowns out the voices of ordinary voters
As Captain Louis Renault was collecting his winnings in Casablanca, he famously declared that he was shocked – shocked – to learn that gambling was taking place in Rick’s Café Américain, and he shut the joint down. Like Renault, we were shocked to find that some people, quite a few actually, think there’s a link between the campaign contributions and luxury junkets given to members of Congress by lobbyists and a member’s vote on issues.
One such junket, by New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, was described in The New York Times this week under the front-page headline “A Loophole Allows Lawmakers to Reel in Trips and Donations.” The loophole is this: Although a 2007 law prohibits lobbyists from giving lawmakers nearly any gifts, they can nonetheless legally donate to political campaigns and so-called leadership PACs controlled by the lawmakers – and those organizations then pay the expenses for catering and lawmakers’ lodging at fancy getaways.
Ayotte’s trip was to a ski resort in Park City, Utah, where she was hosted by a former senator turned lobbyist and joined by executives and lobbyists. When the subject of influence-buying comes up, lawmakers and officials of both parties indignantly proclaim their independence, and those representing Ayotte were quick to do so. But who do they think they’re kidding? Of course there’s a link. That’s why companies, organizations and lobbyists pony up.
The connection is not, in most cases, crude and direct. Favorable treatment is instead the result of relationships formed with members by those willing to spend thousands to, in the words of a health care lobbyist quoted in the article, “get some large chunks of a lawmaker’s time” on the ski slopes or a golf course and in five-star resorts. In exchange for the access, (and the good food, fine wine and other perks), members of Congress get a big pile of money to help guarantee their reelection.
The junkets do something else as well. They separate officeholders, who are treated like royalty, from the hoi polloi, otherwise known as their constituents. They are one reason why studies show that major campaign contributors have far, far more influence with members of Congress than ordinary voters. They also help explain, but only in small measure, why public approval of Congress is at its lowest point in generations.
As offensive as the junkets, which can’t help but have the faint odor of corruption about them, is the fact that massive, non-stop fundraising has become a political necessity. Consider this: So far, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has no major opponent in her re-election bid, but she has already been the target of roughly $500,000 in negative advertising paid for by right-wing groups. She will have to look beyond New Hampshire’s borders for the money to counter such attacks. Similarly, the national Democrats are waging an advertising war against former senator Scott Brown, who hasn’t even decided whether he’s in the race.
As we write, a group calling itself the New Hampshire Rebellion, led by Harvard Law School professor Larry Lessig, is engaged in a walk from New Hampshire’s northern border to Nashua where it will celebrate the birthday of the late Doris “Granny D” Haddock. To call attention to the need for campaign finance reform, Haddock famously walked 3,200 miles across the nation at age 88. Her quest seemed quixotic at the time, but it helped spur landmark campaign reform legislation, later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The hike by the New Hampshire Rebellion seems similarly quixotic, but until something succeeds in stirring the public to demand an end to laws that make fundraising junkets by members of Congress and unlimited political contributions by billionaires legal, the voice of ordinary voters will be only the faintest of whispers in the ears of officeholders.