By Drew Carroll
It’s a cold winter evening in New York City. Walking up Manhattan’s tony Park Avenue, I approach 63rd Street and find it completely barricaded. A polite NYPD officer tells me I’m not going anywhere until the President passes. To an older gentleman standing beside me this wasn’t an acceptable answer. He pulls out a five-dollar bill and offers it to the officer in exchange for letting him cross the street. The officer coolly responds, “that’s what Obama’s here for — money.”
The president was in town for a fundraising blitz, one of a series on his schedule as the White House ramps up for the 2012 campaign. First stop, a thousand dollar a plate dinner at Daniel (don’t make the faux pas I did; it’s pronounced “Danielle”), a four-star restaurant offering haute French cuisine. Later, a more intimate gathering at Spike Lee’s joint fetched a whopping $35,800 per guest, which included the likes of Mariah Carey and her beau Nick Cannon. After riffing on Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, Mr. Obama headed back to the White House with a cool $3 million added to his coffers.
And members of Congress are no different, though because they don’t have the majestic office of the presidency behind them, they spend as much as half their time scurrying after funds. This frenzied search for donations and the ramifications it has on our system of government are the focus of a revealing and insightful new book by the Director of Harvard Law School’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Professor Lawrence Lessig. “Republic, Lost” lays out two critical flaws in the way our government currently operates: elected officials’ depend on campaign cash in order to win elections, and the public assumes that this money corrupts the system and the politicians that operate in it.
The U.S. Supreme Court stated in its 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that political donations “including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” It’s a shame the Supremes did not have the benefit of reading ”Republic, Lost,” which explains the subtle influence of money in politics, and the affect it has on policymaking. Professor Lessig takes you behind the closed doors of Congress and K Street, which he believes consist mostly of good and honest souls who are acting rationally within a corrupt system.
History serves as a guide for how it all developed. Beginning in the post-New Deal era of the 1940’s, Democrats maintained a stranglehold over Congress for nearly 50 years. Ronald Reagan’s win in 1980 gave new hope to a generation of Republican politicians like Newt Gingrich, who would eventually lead his party back to power in both houses of Congress. Mr. Gingrich also ushered in an era when money became paramount in politics. Through a political action committee, Gopac, Mr. Gingrich raised millions of dollars from mostly anonymous donors, whose mission is “educating and training a new generation of Republican leaders.” Elections became more competitive, and outlandishly expensive. The rising influence of paid media, along with larger, more expert, campaign staffs, fueled costs even more, leading to even greater dependency on fundraising. The cycle continues. (more…)