Money and Elections

As of Sept. 30, 2003, the major party candidates for the 2004 U.S. presidential race had raised $182.6 million from individual and special interest donors. Big money donors and special interest groups pre-select Democratic and Republican candidates well before a single vote is cast in the presidential primaries and they influence the policies these candidates push on their platforms. Every major presidential candidate who has held office before, has a “career patron,” that he or she has in turn pandered to. (1)

Charles Lewis is the director of the Washington, DC-based not for profit investigative organization The Center for Public Integrity. By accessing millions of government documents through the Freedom of Information Act, the Center was able to track the money flowing into the coffers of the major presidential candidates and the favors flowing out to these special interests. The Buying of the President 2004: Who’s Really Bankrolling Bush and His Democratic Challengers—and What They Expect in Return, highlights the influence of money on the U.S.’s political process.

(NOTE: all information within parentheses has been added for clarification purposes)

What does the campaign playing field look like?

The sheer amounts of money in the race, the amount needed to be raised the year before an election keeps escalating like an arms race. These numbers are just plain unbelievable. Bush raised $130 million (so far) in 2003, which is double what he raised in 1999 as a presidential candidate. As a macro observation, it was interesting. Seeing this, there was (at the Center) a lot of analysis about the state of democracy. What does it mean when 40 members of the U.S. Senate are millionaires when less than 1% of the American people are millionaires? And what does it mean when we see that over the past three years, the reelection rate of incumbents in the House of Representatives is 98%? It is because the high technology redistricting shenanigans (in states like Texas) and the influence of big money is being used to perpetuate the incumbent class. These are not the types of numbers we would expect in a democracy. With all of this, you have a fairly bleak picture of a rigged electora! l race. It’s what we call a “commercial democracy.” It’s pay to play.

Who is bankrolling President Bush’s campaign and what has he given or promised in return?

We found a letter (through a Freedom of Information Act request) Dick Cheney, while he was CEO of Halliburton to then Vice President Al Gore urging Gore to relax air quality standards. (Cheney) called for a full and open debate about environmental policy in the U.S. It seems ironic how Cheney has been criticized for having secret, off the record meetings with the energy industry over the past three years.

Enron continues to be Bush’s top patron, still number one for him. We unearthed information revealing (former CEO) Ken Lay’s relationship with Bush. Enron, the Bush family – both father and son – and (Bill) Clinton have done 49 favors for the company. These favors included non-enforcement of certain laws and when the company called for deregulation of the energy industry, Bush supported the deregulation the company was seeking. Bush named the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who was installed at the recommendation of Ken Lay. FERC has been on a deregulation path. Bush had a close relationship with Ken Lay, who gave altogether $600,000 to Bush.

And then, when Bush needed help launching his education plan, Lay, pledged his support through a quasi-official group (called the Governor’s Business Council).

In (the Center’s) 2000 list (of top patrons to presidential candidates) there were no financial institutions among the top 10. From 2000 to 2004, there were six out of 10 Wall Street firms. The firms love Bush because of his policies on dividend taxes and capital gains taxes, Bush’s move to privatize social security, protecting offshore tax havens. The administration is trying to make sure that folks who want to hold their money off shore can get to do it. It has been a wonderful time for them and they have shown their gratitude. Special interests and politics are like two peas in a pod; they are a symbiosis at work.

What about the Democrats?

We’ve found new information about Wesley Clark and his lobbying activities…and fees he was paid on behalf Acxiom (a company seeking Homeland Security Contracts). So, here he is lobbying Dick Cheney (for Acxiom), while he’s a military analyst for CNN and the public didn’t know it. Clark continued to be a registered lobbyist when he declared his candidacy on Sept. 17, 2003.

Most people don’t realize how close (Dick) Gephardt is to Anheuser Busch. He’s close to the Busch family and took over $500,000 and did favors for the alcohol industry. Gephardt lobbied over the years to lower taxes on alcohol at least five times.

(Senator) John Kerry’s top patron is (law firm) Mintz & Levin, which represents telecomms and the wireless industry. The top person in Washington in lobbying for the telecomms and the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission) has been Kerry, whose brother is with the law firm. Mintz & Levin has given the senator more than $222,000.

Howard Dean, as governor of Vermont, pushed for policy that saved the power companies but hurt millions of families in Vermont with higher rates. Dean has an aversion to disclosing public records and his public finances. Vermont has one of the highest utility rates in the country, partly because of long-term contracts (the state signed) with its major power companies. Vermont is one of three states with no financial disclosure laws. Dean not only didn’t ever propose improving laws about disclosures; he also never endorsed legislation reforming (current laws). We are getting an image of an imperious official who doesn’t even believe in openness and transparency.

Are there industry patterns along party lines?

There are some trends we’ve seen in term of alignments of the powerful interests. A lot of industries have divvied up their money. Trial lawyers, unions have tended to give to the Democrats. Since 1991, the top “soft money” (large, unlimited contributions) donor to the Republicans has been (tobacco and foods company) Philip Morris, contributing $10.3 million. The top “soft money” donor to the Democrats (in the same time period) has been the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), contributing $16.5 million.

If our presidential nominees are decided for us before voting begins, what incentives are there for people to vote? How has campaign finance reform affected the influence of money on politics?

In every presidential election since 1976, the candidate who has gotten the nomination has raised the most money. Every single time. Based on that, Dean is going to get the (Democratic) nomination, but that precedent could be shattered. The powers that be control the elections, they are the people who sponsor the politicians and the people need to know. You can’t know about the selection process, you can’t be involved, without knowing about the candidates. This is meant to encourage people to vote. We know more about the toasters we buy than about the politicians we select.

Without money, many worthy and valuable candidates are excluded from participating in the elections. This exclusionary nature is why half of eligible voters don’t vote. A lot of Americans view this whole process as rigged or less than fair and open. The two parties control everything…and lawyers and accountants in the electoral process have set up a system that does not include third parties. And so none of these third parties can achieve a critical mass, raise enough money to be included in the process.

The biggest story, and it is a depressing comment, is how little has changed despite campaign finance reform. The fact is that the problem has not gone away because one historic law that was passed. The floodgates are still very open.

(1) For a more in-depth look at how money has influenced the current presidential candidates, please see the Center for Public Integrity’s Web site

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