How Money Buys Power in American Politics
The Midas touch tops the common touch as the main dynamic for Washington's ever safer incumbents.

By Francis X. Clines
Published November 2nd 2005
Well before he was indicted by a Texas grand jury in September, House Majority leader Tom DeLay personified the golden age of big-money politics now running roughshod across the American democratic process. Whether Mr. DeLay's excesses as a campaign finance wheeler-dealer prove to be a crime or not, the combative Texan stands out as the exemplar, not the exception, in Washington's money-obsessed political class.

Mr. DeLay is being accused of putting some excess from the millions his money machine regularly raises into a bold, if reprehensible, stratagem for gaming Texas's legislative elections to win a Republican majority. That grateful statehouse majority turned around and approved a DeLay gerrymander that increased his own majority grip on Congress.

At the heart of roguish campaigning and its mushrooming variations is the fact that there are so many unneeded special interest checks pouring into the coffers of elected officials. In the 435 Congressional elections last year, only seven incumbents lost to challengers. The winners, most of whom spent five times more than their rivals, had over $150 million left to go shopping when all the votes were tallied. Some incumbents are letting the boon earn interest until their next underfinanced challenger comes along. Dozens of more creative politicians in both parties - not just Mr. DeLay - spend it by investing in the campaigns of colleagues to purchase intramural clout, and by capitalizing schemes to become virtually election-proof. They build formidable war chests that increasingly serve to scare off future challengers. Lacking the lure of quid-pro-quo incumbents, challengers cannot come close to wooing the major donors needed to meet the record one-million-dollar stake that it took last year to win the average House seat.

With millions in election kitties, a chokehold on Washington's lucrative K Street lobbying market, and his obsessive focus on compounding the Republicans' power base at any price, Mr. DeLay's fall from grace was steep, but hardly unanticipated. Still, DeLay is hardly alone in exploiting campaign laws. Reigning politicians of both parties suffer largely token oversight by puppet appointees on the Federal Elections Commission too often chosen by party bosses for their proven lack of independence. Evasive rulings and lax regulations have made the F.E.C. more the collegial enabler than the respected referee of politicians circumventing campaign laws.

The biggest surprise to the cadres of campaign lawyers and loophole tailors busily employed in Washington is that one of the notoriously porous, incumbent-friendly campaign laws in Texas was sturdy enough to produce indictments at all. To make his claim that the law was bent by underhanded Democratic prosecutors, Mr. DeLay has already amassed a million-dollar defense fund chockablock with donations from fierce loyalists in the House - incumbents whose career ascent, and risk of descent, is tied to his.

As riveting as the tooth-and-claw antics of a politician like Mr. DeLay are, it's more important that taxpayers come to grips with the systemic flaws that are nourishing a legion of opportunists in both parties. Whatever happens to Mr. DeLay, the larger value of his case is that it provides a window on the temptation of big-money politics and abdication of responsibility that have become routine in Washington.

1. The Incumbents' Swagger on Politics' Easy Street

If America's political health can be measured by the competitiveness of its races for the House of Representatives - which is not a bad measure - every two years the body politic takes a noticeable turn for the worse. In the last four elections, 98 percent of incumbents who ran won (and 88 percent in the Senate), with 9 of 10 races settled by breeze-to-victory margins of better than 10 percent, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, an independent research group. In the few competitive races, incumbents raised an average of $1.6 million - 18 percent more than in the previous election - to defeat 49 challengers who were able to raise less than half that amount, according to Fairvote, the Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-profit, non-partisan watchdog organization. Once safely retained, the victors did not put aside fund raising. In fact, it's already galloping forward, with incumbents' treasuries for next year's House and Senate elections already at $400 million and growing at nearly triple the rate of the most recent campaigns. "You're either on the outside or the inside, and the only thing that can get you inside is money," former Florida Representative Joe Scarborough bluntly summarized in "Speaking Freely," a publication of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit organization that closely tracks political money.

Beyond overwhelming advantages in money, incumbents in both parties face ever easier re-elections because of their party bosses' monopoly in redrawing Congressional districts to minimize an insurgent's chances. Three out of four incumbents who survived close races in 2000 enjoyed far more favorable district lines two years later, following statehouse redistricting. The DeLay stratagem in Texas was a grand example of a new kind of gerrymander in which lines are redrawn "out of season," instead of waiting for the next 10-year census, in order to exploit or create fresh vulnerabilities for the opposition. Democrats in other states already are considering retaliatory schemes.

A movement to reform redistricting is now beginning to bubble up, with proposals on the ballots in California and Ohio that would remove lawmakers from the process by using independent panels instead. The issue deserves far more national attention.

The combination of highly strategic redistricting and overflowing incumbent war chests pretty much guaranteed that 65 percent of all Congressional races went uncontested last year at the primary level, where challengers have their best shot. In those that were contested, 9 of every 10 were won by the candidates who raised the most money, according to U.S. PIRG, the Washington lobbying office for state public interest research groups. Big-money donors, many of them from out of state, worked primary contests like casino handicappers, delivering 63 percent of all contributions in the form of checks of $1,000 or more.

Lately, a sorry symptom of the incumbents' dominance is that they are so swamped by donors that they actually need to lay off - as bookmakers would put it - excess political money. They do so by creating what are called "leadership PAC's" - political action committees maintained as adjunct treasuries by increasing numbers of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Leadership is beside the point as lawmakers dip into these slush funds to win favors and influence from their own colleagues.

Privately, a few lawmakers complain of the corruption risk in using "leadership" money to ease a career path toward a desired committee appointment. One of the greedier incumbent gambits, attempted as a rider in a transportation bill, would allow leadership PAC's extraordinary leeway to transmit money out through national party treasuries to be returned as magically legalized enrichments for the lawmakers' own campaigns.

This would give incumbents an 8-to-1 advantage over election challengers observing the campaign law's tighter limits with none of the "leadership" gelt. This reach for still more of an incumbent's edge was put on hold in the Senate after some media attention. But given how important this kind of financial flexibility it to incumbents, comparable retrenchments are likely to resurface.

Ross Baker, a political scientist, aptly warns of the nation's "hyper-empowerment of incumbents" of both parties, saying that it "more nearly resembles hereditary entitlement" than competitive democracy. Critics can differ widely in their prescriptions for making politics more responsive to the people, but few should disagree with the conclusion of a recent Cato Institute study that true competition will not return "until the incumbent fox ends his tenure as guardian of the democratic henhouse."

2. An Unquenchable Thirst for Money, Soft or Hard

In its 2003 ruling upholding the McCain-Feingold law's ban on open-ended, seven-figure campaign donations to federal politicians, the Supreme Court warned that "money, like water, will always find an outlet." It took a mere two months before politicians and the donors who love them found an alternate system of piping, and millions of dollars were sloshing about the presidential campaign in the form of unregulated "soft money" donations from unions, corporations and assorted fat-cats.

This time, the supposed watchdogs at the F.E.C. let the soft money tap be reopened by shadow party operatives who raised hundreds of millions and then feigned political independence to qualify under a tax code provision, known as section 527, designed to protect truly non-partisan advocacy groups. McCain-Feingold defenders have countered with legislation and a lawsuit to affirm the obvious - that the stealth 527 groups like last year's Swift Boat Veterans assault team and corresponding Democratic attack groups are partisan, and need to be regulated.

There are a variety of bills in Congress that would open the spigot further. One proposed law, opposed by the House Democratic leaders, would undo the anti-corruption reforms that emerged from the Watergate scandal and gut the hard-won regulations of McCain-Feingold by letting office holders and party bosses once more behave as uninhibited rainmakers in soliciting millions from favor seekers.

Still to be dealt with are controls on the potential torrent of political money that began moving over the Internet in last year's elections. The House has begun consideration of a proposal to bar all regulation of politics on the Internet, which would officially bless the Web as a dominant new source of unregulated donations. Senator John McCain of Arizona first showed the political power of the Web in his run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, when his populist style drew donors from the ranks of computer users. Last year, Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was flooded with Internet donations. Senator John Kerry's operation eventually surpassed it, raising more than $80 million via the Internet. In his 2000 campaign, Al Gore raised a mere $50 million from individual contributors, both online and off.

The ultimate potential of the Web as a money raiser is anyone's guess. The F.E.C. initially attempted a broad exemption from campaign finance rules for Internet political communications. When this was struck down by a federal court as a violation of the McCain-Feingold law, the F.E.C. responded with a regulation focused on controlling the growing phenomenon of paid political advertising.

This approach has received the endorsement, rare for the F.E.C., of the main sponsors of campaign reform - Senators McCain and Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, and Representatives Martin Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat, and Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican. They argue persuasively that preventing negative blitzes of uncontrolled soft money advertising on the Internet is a necessity, and one that would not hinder robust political debate, as bloggers are warning.

The tight bonds between incumbents and their big-money donors are most obvious at the parties' national conventions with their V.I.P. suites for flesh-pressing and check-writing. And the symbiosis is increasingly apparent in precincts where Washington lawmakers gather. Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, recently excoriated the Republicans' close dealings with golden-goose contributors, ruing they had "opened the Capitol doors and invited their donors and cronies in to help themselves." Senate Democrats, however, were soon observed by the Congressional newspaper Roll Call quietly welcoming one of their major donors, the billionaire Stephen Bing, into an exclusive strategy lunch just off the debating chamber. The extraordinary access for Mr. Bing, who gave $14 million to Democratic causes last year, was defended as far from hypocritical. "He's just really interested in making this country better," one Democratic senator insisted, inviting leers from cynics in both parties.

3. The Omnipresent Lobbyists

"This town is swarming with lobbyists."
- President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, urging news reporters to search beyond the obvious in Washington.

Among the first responders to the disaster of hurricane Katrina were capital lobbyists geared up to snare their clients' profitable shares in the non-bid contracts, emergency legislation and massive federal mobilization that always spells opportunity in Washington. Contract names familiar from the Iraq occupation as favored friends of the Bush administration quickly showed up amid the Gulf Coast debris as reconstruction experts. No wonder - the $3-billion-a-year lobbying industry is one of Washington's fastest growing institutions.

Lobbyists are so tight with elected officials that at least 39 members of Congress use corporate lobbyists to head their fund raising committees, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group. Taxpayers who wonder how Washington really works might consult the center's detailed findings of how the $13 billion spent by corporate and special interest groups to lobby lawmakers since 1998 was double the amount spent to elect them.

Legions of lawmakers and their staffers routinely join administration insiders in a kind of capital guild system - first learning the ropes of government service then migrating to the private sector as highly paid lobbyists. Key government drafters of the new Medicare drug subsidy program were conspicuous last year in their hurry to cross over once the bonanza bill was passed. They are leading the literally hundreds of lobbyists now angling to secure clients' profits by settling the details of how the law will soon be implemented.

No one knows precisely how many lobbyists there are: 14,000 have registered under a skimpily monitored, 10-year-old law, but other sources estimate there could be at least twice that many. Since 1998, half of the 36 senators and two-fifths of the 198 House members who departed stayed to lobby old colleagues.

The ethics rules touching on lobbyists' pervasive access to Congress can border on the comical. One rule sanctimoniously bars a lobbyist from spending more than $100 a year to entertain a lawmaker; but another rule scraps that limit in the special case of campaign fund raising events, weirdly inviting money to trump ethics. This is part of the filigree of loopholes that limn Washington's incumbent protection culture.

"I just have to worry about the next paycheck," Representative Bob Livingston, Louisiana Republican and appropriations chairman, famously said upon suddenly leaving Congress in 1999 in the face of an adultery scandal. Citizen Livingston quickly founded a lobbying group that scored over $1 million in clients in its first year and $26 million since then, according to Public Citizen's Congress Watch, an independent group that studies the bi-partisan riches driving Washington politics.

Working the Democratic side of the aisle no less skillfully are such master lobbyists as William Oldaker, former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. He has served as treasurer of campaign fund committees managing more than $2 million in donations for 23 politicians since 1998 while his firms were paid $14 million to lobby some of the same incumbents.

It's important to emphasize that practitioners consider themselves quite professional and are not often ruled out of bounds. For example, while there's a flimsy "revolving-door" rule that barred ex-representatives from lobbying for a year, Mr. Livingston held off from directly working old colleagues that first year by managing his team of lobbyists from the office.

To even begin attracting attention to the encrusted ties of lawmakers and lobbyists it took a truly hubristic practitioner, Jack Abramoff, the power lobbyist indicted this year as part of a multi-part investigation of his generously bankrolled dealings from the inside. These include his alleged gulling of casino Indian tribes out of scores of millions with promises of influential Congressional access. ("I want all their MONEY!!!" Mr. Abramoff's lobbying partner, Michael Scanlon, former spokesman for Mr. DeLay, had gleefully e-mailed his associate.) Mr. Abramoff's operations were firmly rooted in his working friendships with Mr. DeLay and other lawmakers who availed themselves of Mr. Abramoff's signature overseas golf junkets, floated with clients' money.

So far the G.O.P. leadership has shown no appetite to support reform bills to control lobbyist-lawmaker excesses. The arrogant mood in the House is best reflected in the fact that while Mr. DeLay announced his "temporary" retreat from the majority leader's post, he has kept his power base while seeing to his ostensible replacement, Roy Blunt of Missouri. Mr. Blunt is a DeLay protégé and acknowledged master of the Republicans' K Street lobbying and fund raising machine, widely known as DeLay Inc.

4. Slender Hopes for Self-Reform in Washington

With one party now controlling the majority power levers, there is no concerted effort for reform, although the McCain-Feingold-Meehan-Shays group is still trying to shame lawmakers into action. Critics complain the soft money ban has failed to stop the exponential growth of political spending. But the ban, a laborious seven-year crusade that also allowed larger regulated hard-money donations as a counter-balance for candidates, was only aimed at one of the most obvious scandals: the blatant practice of lawmakers personally begging and bagging six- and seven-figure donations from special interests.

The spirit that drove the soft-money reform before the 2002 elections, with crucial support from G.O.P. moderates, seems absent from the current Congress. Rather, one bi-partisan move that's afoot - in the name of reform - would return politicians to the pre-Watergate past, nullifying McCain-Feingold and more to effectively repeal basic limits on party spending and individual donations. In similar fashion, House conservatives, under the guise of cost-saving for hurricane Katrina reconstruction, propose ending the public financing alternative for presidential elections, without benefit of hearings, arguing that most taxpayers do not support the $3 check-off option on their tax returns.

The main problem with the check-off system is that its payout limits have become outdated in the face of modern campaign costs. The increased front-loading of the primary calendar has caused well-endowed candidates to skip public financing until November and focus on private donations to meet the rush of high-stake primary costs. The taxpayer check-off limit needs to be increased to again make it a realistic alternative in the primaries.

In addition, candidates should not be able to have it both ways - pouring private donations into the primary season (more than $300 million by the Kerry and Bush campaigns), then accepting $75 million apiece from the public till for the general election, as they did last year. The alternative to fixing the public system is to make candidates even more beholden to private donors and further undermine the chances of outsiders unless they are millionaires.

The official referee of the campaign rule book, the F.E.C., is denounced by Mr. McCain as "a corrupt, enabling organization stacked with political hacks" chosen by party leaders to insulate incumbents. The commission is theoretically ripe for overhaul, since four of its six seats are technically vacant, leaving President Bush free to take a new approach. That isn't likely, despite the clear need for commissioners less attuned to the dollar agenda of party strategists. Congressional leaders already are reported considering safe party retainers as nominees to maintain the F.E.C. as more lapdog than watchdog. One rumored nominee is a campaign finance lawyer from the DeLay operations. The McCain reformers are urging President Bush to name independent professionals while reappointing Scott Thomas, a commissioner respected for his dissents from the panel's pro-incumbent bias. He is, however, a Democrat who's already being ruled out by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid in his recommendations to the White House, according to BNA, the legal and regulatory news service. If President Bush simply opts for party business as usual at the F.E.C., he will be reaffirming it as "a complete captive of the congressional incumbents the agency is supposed to regulate," in the words of Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, an independent watchdog group.

In the Capitol, the ethics rules of Congress are increasingly vaporous with few incumbents demanding something better. In the Senate, it took the Securities and Exchange Commission - not Senate oversight - to finally begin looking into majority leader Bill Frist's dodgy sale of stock from his family hospital company days before its price tanked. The supposed blind-trust ethical rules so fervidly professed by Mr. Frist and other incumbents have prompted Washington jokes about the Capitol's seeing-eye loophole.

In the House, the investigations of Mr. Abramoff's lobbying abuses are being conducted by the Justice Department and other outside investigators. But the House's own ethics process remains ossified. The Democratic minority is refusing to cooperate with a move by DeLay supporters to have the majority dictate the ethics panel's agenda. Mr. Abramoff, the indicted uber-lobbyist, clearly exploited his close relationship with Mr. DeLay and his staff in building a clientele, but he took care to weave others, Democrats as well as Republicans, into his orbit. Discomfort is general as the inquiries go forward. But detailed public information about junkets and other abuses comes not from outraged politicians, but from independent watchdog groups like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

During the past five years, Congressional incumbents received $18.8 million worth of travel at the expense of private organizations. More than 600 lawmakers - 57 percent of them Democrats - made 6,385 trips, according to the research service PoliticalMoneyLine. Heavyweight incumbents close to Mr. Abramoff in his junketeering and boosting of clients' legislation - notably Representative Robert Ney, Ohio Republican - are scrambling to tell constituents how they were duped by that rare, unscrupulous player in the Capitol game.

The main support for reform also comes from outside watchdog groups, not lawmakers, but there are some wide differences by the watchdogs on what to do. The Cato Institute, for example, prefers Congressional term limits and liberalized private donations rather than "publicly financed careerism," while urging that politicians be "disconnected" from controlling their own campaign rules and gerrymander lines. The most discouraging aspect of the myriad problems of Washington's political culture - and their continuing resistance to reform - may have been best stated by Mr. DeLay. "We have done everything by the book," he emphasized in defending himself and his tireless amassing of political money and power. More than Mr. DeLay, it is that book which should be the issue - the textbook on the incumbents' lucrative dominance of politics.