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Limit corruption by limiting money

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Congressional Republicans tell us we need a constitutional amendment that requires a balanced budget. They’re right about the need for an amendment but wrong about the subject. We need an amendment that limits campaign contributions. Only then will sanity and adult discussions return to Congress.

The problem starts with the role of money within the parties. To rise in stature, legislators have to support their party, both by vote and with fundraising. Loyalty to the party means appointment to key committees, and key committees mean prestige and power. The more influential the committee, the greater a legislator’s ability is to raise funds from those who need access.

With many so closely linked to survival, party allegiance necessarily takes precedence over national agenda.

In an interview with The New York Times¸Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said, “Money changes hands here way too much.”  With money so closely linked to survival, party allegiance necessarily takes precedence over national agenda. Politicians campaign on the platform that they want to serve, but after they get elected, their goals become much more mundane. Like everyone else, they just want to stay employed.

When legislators get to powerful positions, the money rolls in. According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), in the 2009-2010 election cycle, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid raised $19 million, and Speaker of the House John A. Boehner raised $9.7 million.

When you’re in the business of fundraising, you’re subject to influence peddling.  Take a look at campaign contributions. According to OpenSecrets.org, between 1989 and 2010 the National Association of Realtors made political contributions of $40 million. Other heavy hitting contributors are: American Federation of Teachers, $31 million; Altria (formerly PhilipMorris), $23 million; Goldman Sachs, $21 million; National Rifle Association, $18 million; Lockheed Martin, $17 million; and, JP Morgan, $15 million.

Political action committees or PACs are gearing up for the 2012 election. OpenSecrets.org calculates that the leading conservative PACs have raised $17.6 million during the first of half of this year and that the leading liberal PACs have raised $7.6 million.

Simply put, money equals access. No one wants to admit it, but the fact that so many companies regularly contribute so much should be adequate proof. Former Sen. George V. Voinovich was one of the few to acknowledge the point. In an interview with The Dispatch in April 2010, Voinovich said, “Truthfully, it has an impact on you. Somebody who has a big fundraiser in Ohio and says they want to come in to see you (in Washington) and, you know, you see those individuals.

Voinovich added that a legislator’s character is tested when a contributor seeks a favor.  We probably don’t want to hear how often contributions swing votes, and while the influence of contributions is anything but overt, it is precisely the subtlety of the unspoken obligation that contributions create that is so dangerous.

There’s a movement afoot, led by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, to put the brakes on campaign contributions. He’s angry that D.C. legislators “have chosen to put partisan and ideological purity over the well-being of the people” and sees a “disconnect” between what goes on in Washington, D.C., and what the average American needs. So, stop making contributions to both parties, he advises. Supposedly, 140 fellow CEOs have signed a pledge to stop making political contributions. A nice idea, but not enough.  Those who want influence will keep the game going.

Fortunately, we have some limitations in place. FEC regulations limit how much individuals, parties and PACs can contribute, but there is no limit on how much an individual can raise, and limiting who can contribute becomes tricky business as the U.S. Supreme Court has equated campaign funding with free speech.

Probably the only way to limit corporate and PAC influence in a meaningful way that passes constitutional muster is to pass a constitutional amendment, a tall order indeed. After all, the system works just fine for those who have reached the right positions.

Imagine for a moment, though, how Congress would operate if PACs and corporations were precluded from making campaign contributions. What if members of Congress were allowed to raise, say, just $100,000 per election cycle?  What if they had to turn over to the U.S. Treasury anything that exceeded that amount? What if committee appointments did not present the potential for financial gain they now do? Maybe then Congress would be able to attend to the people’s business.

 

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