Friday, February 19, 2010

A Primer On The Role of Money in Politics

Money is important in political campaigns because it buys face time. Most incumbents have face time in abundance. They also collect political contributions in abundance, some of it donated by groups the incumbent is supposed to be regulating.

That was the case with Chris Dodd, the favorite candidate of every Republican running against him. As head of the Banking Committee, Dodd was supposed to be regulating big banks and financial institutions. When the Journal Inquirer publicized the role played by Dodd in the termination of the Glass-Steagall Act, the skids were greased and Dodd found himself on the wrong side of an accepted political narrative: that campaign contributions corrupt, and big campaign contributions corrupt absolutely.

This is the dark side of political contributions: They are swords that may cut both ways.

Self financed campaigns are a different kettle of fish. Self financing gets rid of toxic middle men. The self-financer can only corrupt himself. There is no ticking time bomb that connects him with obvious influence peddlers. He falls outside the destructive narrative that hung like a millstone around Dodd’s neck.

The nature of corruption changes depending upon whether Republicans, assumed to favor business interests, or Democrats, assumed to favor unions interests or the interests of other organizations that make their money off businesses, are in the ascendancy. What is the danger, after all, that a Republican who does favor the claims of businesses over unions will be corrupted by campaign contributions made by union stewards?

Not so much.

Dodd was and still is a liberal of long standing. He received generous campaign contributions from businesses that did his bidding, when it was in their interests to do so. As a general rule, one may expect the business community to make campaign contributions to incumbents, whatever their standing on the political spectrum, provided the campaign contribution recipient is not wholly oppose to business interests – and even sometimes when he is; that is why Lenin predicted the bourgeois would sell revolutionists the rope they would dangle from once the revolution had been accomplished. Corporate campaign contributions are divided almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Since 1990, corporations have almost evenly divided their contributions, 49.4 percent toward Democrats and 50.6 percent toward Republicans. Union political spending is far more party focused. In the same period, labor unions gave 92 percent of donations to Democrats, while just 8 percent went to Republicans.

Perhaps the titans of industry overvalue the influence of money in politics. There are ideological sons of thunder in politics whom no dollar can buy. Chris Dodd thought himself such, but some media people were not buying the narrative.

In any case, there is no direct connection between money and politics such that we can be absolutely certain that the politician who accepts campaign funds from - -- to pick at random one interest group – lawyers will invariably do the political bidding of lawyers. Even so, when a money connection has been established, it would be foolish not to suspect the money may have bought more than the politician’s ear. Such ears are the real windows to the soul.

Money is, after all, a means of exchange. Congressional bills may also serve as a means of exchange.

In the absence of some certifiable quid pro quo, there is no dirty money in politics. In seeking to pin a charge of corruption on a politician, benefits must be examined: Qui bono – Who benefits? -- is the single most important political question to consider when corruption is suspected. In this regard, one is more likely to be unwittingly betrayed by friends than enemies. In the political theatre, money is not the only means of exchange. What the money buys, more often than not, is some twist in the law that benefits contributors.

The Democratic Majority in Congress just now is attempting to overturn a Supreme Court decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal that will, should they be successful, open wide the door to frivolous lawsuits against small businesses and law enforcement officials. The two bills, introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-R-D-PA.) in the Senate and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) in the House, prohibit federal judges from dismissing a case unless “it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of the claim which would entitle the plaintiff to relief.”

That standard is considerably less rigorous than the standard the bill seeks to overthrow. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal the Supreme Court said plaintiffs must include in their initial pleadings substantial, not "threadbare," factual assertions that give "facial plausibility" to their claims -- a major shift from the tradition of "notice pleading," which required only a simple statement of the case against the defendant. The Supreme Court ruling provided a benefit to many innocent defendants attacked by unscrupulous trial lawyers with frivolous lawsuits trying to get quick and rich settlements.

If the qui bono question is put here, the answer to it is plain: lawyers who tie up their targets in expensive litigation in hopes of settlements clearly are the beneficiaries of these pending bills, and the U.S. Congress, full to the brim with lawyers, is their chief facilitator, a connection so insidiously subtle it may not be noticed at all.
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