Excerpt from a February article in The Nation:
“The source of America’s cynicism is not hard to find. Americans despise the inauthentic. Gregory House, of the eponymous TV medical drama, is a hero not because he is nice (he isn’t) but because he is true. Tiger Woods is a disappointment not because he is evil (he isn’t) but because he proved false. We may want peace and prosperity, but most would settle for simple integrity. Yet the single attribute least attributed to Congress, at least in the minds of the vast majority of Americans, is just that: integrity. And this is because most believe our Congress is a simple pretense. That rather than being, as our framers promised, an institution “dependent on the People,” the institution has developed a pathological dependence on campaign cash. The US Congress has become the Fundraising Congress. And it answers–as Republican and Democratic presidents alike have discovered–not to the People, and not even to the president, but increasingly to the relatively small mix of interests that fund the key races that determine which party will be in power.
“This is corruption. Not the corruption of bribes, or of any other crime known to Title 18 of the US Code. Instead, it is a corruption of the faith Americans have in this core institution of our democracy. The vast majority of Americans believe money buys results in Congress (88 percent in a recent California poll). And whether that belief is true or not, the damage is the same. The democracy is feigned. A feigned democracy breeds cynicism. Cynicism leads to disengagement. Disengagement leaves the fox guarding the henhouse.
“This corruption is not hidden. On the contrary, it is in plain sight, with its practices simply more and more brazen. Consider, for example, the story Robert Kaiser tells in his fantastic book So Damn Much Money, about Senator John Stennis, who served for forty-one years until his retirement in 1989. Stennis, no choirboy himself, was asked by a colleague to host a fundraiser for military contractors while he was chair of the Armed Services Committee. “Would that be proper?” Stennis asked. “I hold life and death over those companies. I don’t think it would be proper for me to take money from them.”
“Is such a norm even imaginable in DC today? Compare Stennis with Max Baucus, who has gladly opened his campaign chest to $3.3 million in contributions from the healthcare and insurance industries since 2005, a time when he has controlled healthcare in the Senate. Or Senators Lieberman, Bayh and Nelson, who took millions from insurance and healthcare interests and then opposed the (in their states) popular public option for healthcare. Or any number of Blue Dog Democrats in the House who did the same, including, most prominently, Arkansas’s Mike Ross. Or Republican John Campbell, a California landlord who in 2008 received (as ethics reports indicate) between $600,000 and $6 million in rent from used car dealers, who successfully inserted an amendment into the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act to exempt car dealers from financing rules to protect consumers. Or Democrats Melissa Bean and Walter Minnick, who took top-dollar contributions from the financial services sector and then opposed stronger oversight of financial regulations.
“The list is endless; the practice open and notorious. Since the time of Rome, historians have taught that while corruption is a part of every society, the only truly dangerous corruption comes when the society has lost any sense of shame. Washington has lost its sense of shame.
“As fundraising becomes the focus of Congress–as the parties force members to raise money for other members, as they reward the best fundraisers with lucrative committee assignments and leadership positions–the focus of Congressional “work” shifts. Like addicts constantly on the lookout for their next fix, members grow impatient with anything that doesn’t promise the kick of a campaign contribution. The first job is meeting the fundraising target. Everything else seems cheap. Talk about policy becomes, as one Silicon Valley executive described it to me, “transactional.” The perception, at least among industry staffers dealing with the Hill, is that one makes policy progress only if one can promise fundraising progress as well.”
Find out which company owns your congresspeople at The Center For Responsive Politics.
And before I let go of this completely, a last quote from the article:
“There is a brilliance to how the current fraud is sustained. Everyone inside this game recognizes that if the public saw too clearly that the driving force in Washington is campaign cash, the public might actually do something to change that. So every issue gets reframed as if it were really a question touching some deep (or not so deep) ideological question. Drug companies fund members, for example, to stop reforms that might actually test whether “me too” drugs are worth the money they cost. But the reforms get stopped by being framed as debates about “death panels” or “denying doctor choice” rather than the simple argument of cost-effectiveness that motivates the original reform. A very effective campaign succeeds in obscuring the source of conflict over major issues of reform with the pretense that it is ideology rather than campaign cash that divides us.”