Crossing palms

Posted: Sunday, June 06, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.):

Considering how much candidates for Congress flatter the electorate when they're trying to get votes, it's interesting that once they're in, their opinion of the intelligence of their constituents drops significantly. That's most notable when Sen. Phineas T. Blowhard rakes in a few hundred thousand bucks from the Left-Handed Widget Manufacturers of America for his re-election campaign, and then introduces legislation to require left-handed widgets in all homes, even those belonging to right-handed people.

Questioned about a conflict of interest, Sen. Blowhard becomes irate. "How dare you insinuate that just because I received considerable financial backing for my campaign from this industry, I shall dance to their tune!" he thunders. "I'm outraged! I'm shocked! Now out of the way. I have to get to the Gilded Hotel for a well-deserved fundraiser in my honor!"

Sure, that may be a little beyond the typical, but as the financial services industry demonstrates in the midst of negotiation over the final shape of national reform to guard against another Great Recession, and to protect consumers from thieves of all stripes in worsteds, special interest groups aren't even subtle about targeting members of Congress as their special friends.

Consider, in a story from The New York Times, U.S. Rep. John Adler, a Democrat from southern New Jersey. Adler is a freshman, virtually unknown. And yet, he's raised $2 million (much of it from investment and insurance firms) for his first re-election campaign. That's still third from the top among freshmen. Oh, by the way, Adler happens to be a member of the financial services committee of the House. Coincidence? Would you like to buy the Brooklyn Bridge? Adler's staff is quick to point out that despite his support from the financial industry, he has voted against those interests.

OK, but those in high finance on Wall Street, many of whom still believe legislation to curb their wild ways is a bad idea, are investing for both the short and long term. Does this mean members of Congress are for sale? Not necessarily, but the $1.7 billion spent on congressional candidates in the last 10 years by banks, hedge funds, insurance companies and the like isn't a case of giving something for nothing. More like, spending money to make money.

At the least, campaign contributions buy access. The Wall Street lobbyist doesn't spend much time cooling his heels in the outer office after he's helped sponsor a fundraiser at some elegant Capitol Hill salon.

Members of Congress are really treating their constituents with disrespect when they try to argue that huge campaign fund-raising doesn't influence their votes.

Yes, thanks to the failure of Congress to enact really significant campaign finance reform that will stand up in court, running for office and holding on to office are expensive propositions requiring constant fund-raising. But the influence of self-interested industries can skew legislation that is vital to protecting average Americans, and financial reform is one of those areas in which the public interest is at risk of being drowned out by the noise money can make.

It is thus important that the residents of congressional districts pay attention not just to what candidates and incumbents say, but from where the money behind that message comes. In the end, only the voters can truly hold accountable an incumbent who has a sunburn on his palm from holding it out to special interest groups.

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