After all the nauseating detail from the Jack Abramoff case about political corruption on a scale perhaps not witnessed since the days of Mark Hannah and the McKinley presidency, much of Washington is focused on how to begin fixing it, or at least addressing it in ways that will provide a reasonable enough cover story to voters that it's being fixed. But how to heal the whole corrupt system without striking at the foundation? The new Washington Monthly cover story by veteran money and politics beat reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum says it all:
Campaign finance laws are built on a legal fiction. To wit: Electoral donations are considered within the law even though they are actually bribes at root. Think of them as "legalized bribery." Through bundled contributions and PAC giving, industries, labor unions, and interest groups of all stripes try to persuade lawmakers to vote their way on the issues they care most about. Donors do not express their desire just that way. They use euphemisms like "buying access" to wink and nod their way toward the same thought. But the truth is the truth. Interests give money to buy votes. Unfortunately for those interests, lawmakers receive funds from so many sources, and also sometimes make their legislative decisions based on factors that have nothing to do with money, that the contributions do not always produce the result they desire. Still, the basic fact remains. The dollars would not be offered unless the donors hoped they would lead to a very specific result.
The Monthly, the little magazine that could, gets much of the original credit for bird-dogging this subject and keeping it in front of larger, better-funded media outlets (which read the magazine closely and for years have hired its reporters, who have gone on to the highest ranks of the profession). Back in the summer of 2003, it ran this devastating cover story, which for the first time, I think, described in a comprehensive way how the Republican congressional leadership's unprecedented merger with the K Street lobbying industry was systematically subverting democracy.
For years, the magazine, founded by former JFK Peace Corps volunteer and West Virginia native Charlie Peters (now semi-retired, he recently published this book), ran a house ad that nicely explained how it saw its mission. It was a sketch of a couple of guys hovering over the Capitol dome, tinkering under the hood as if giving the place a tune-up. This is a magazine that has always seen itself as being mired in the thick of fixing federal policy, but it also had an appealing sense of modesty over its ability to effect change (Peters' cranky column was called "Tilting at Windmills").
Just how big is the problem of money and politics? For that, we turn to another crack Beltway organization founded by one especially driven man: the Center for Public Integrity, begun by former ABC news producer Charles Lewis. The nonprofit, foundation-sponsored group does some of the finest investigative journalism in the country, keeping an especially close eye on the giant apparatus lobbying the federal government. This compilation of the largest lobbying firms says it all. I estimate the total at about $3.5 billion.
Birnbaum, who was for years a featured writer for Fortune before he moved over to the Washington Post, notes in the new piece that senior Beltway attorneys knowledgeable in the area of the laws governing lobbying are being swamped by corporations and trade associations looking for advice on how to stay out of trouble post-Abramoff. What he doesn't say is that the crucial part of their service is to coach clients in how to win in this never-ending cat-and-mouse game of remaining technically within the boundaries of what any honest person can see essentially amounts to legal bribery. After all, it's a truism in American politics that you can't take the money out of politics any more than you can prevent water from running downhill. As Birnbaum notes, "many lawmakers and congressional staffers are voluntarily staying away from the fancy dinners and lunches that lobbyists love to host, at least for the time being." Emphasis all mine.