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Flashpoint

May 6, 2012

FLASHPOINT: Is money a problem in politics? Depends on where you sit

The role of money in politics needs to be better understood. Does it make the political system work better, or is it a problem — and if so, how much of one?

Most voters are convinced that campaign contributions buy results, as poll after poll over the years has shown. About half think that members of Congress are corrupt. Many say we have the best Congress money can buy. And they certainly don’t like the huge amounts of money that are pouring into the system.

Yet the view looks very different when it comes to those most closely involved in the system. Most members of Congress find the chase after campaign contributions annoying, but they don’t believe it is corrupting. They don’t believe that they’re selling their votes or that money influences their behavior. Look a member of Congress in the eye and he will tell you, in all sincerity, that he can’t be bought. I never met a politician who thought he was corruptible.

 The same argument is made by the lobbyists who provide so much campaign cash. Most lobbyists are hard-working, honorable, well-informed experts in their particular fields. They do not, with the occasional rare exception, go around bribing members of Congress — I can speak only for myself, but in all my years in Congress only once did I get an offer I considered improper, and that came from a foreign national.

This is not to say that lobbyists don’t seek influence, however. They do, and money helps. One way they establish good relations with members of Congress is by providing campaign money to those who agree with their positions or to the opponents of those who disagree. In this way they help shape and reinforce a member’s views and what he does. There is nothing nefarious about this: If as a freshman member of Congress I cast a few votes in favor of, say, free trade, the lobbying community will pick up on this quickly and I’ll suddenly find myself getting contributions from those with an interest in free trade.

In this way, lobbyists help to set the political agenda. By supporting members who advocate their views, they inevitably make it more attractive to members to do just that — support their views. On the large issues, of course, lobbyists sometimes cancel each other out. So the influence of the lobbyist declines the bigger the issue is. But on the small matters that are their bread and butter — an obscure tax change or a shift in the regulatory code that will help their clients or a bill the public has little interest in — they may well have the field to themselves.

So this is the essential conundrum of political money: Americans as a whole believe it’s pernicious, but those who are closest to the system do not. Some say we just need to get money out of politics, but I see no way this can be done. That is why many reform advocates favor finding ways to reduce the impact of money in the system, say by requiring broadcasters to devote a certain amount of air time to free campaign advertising. Others, including myself, favor public financing of campaigns, as a way of reducing the role of campaign contributions in politics. I don’t believe either proposal stands much chance of enactment anytime soon.

So we should instead focus on the most troubling aspect of the system. Money may not usually be corrupting, but it does provide donors and lobbyists with disproportionate influence — sometimes in support of the common good, but often not. It diminishes the power and the role of ordinary voters.

While most voters can’t hope to compete with all the money coming from deep-pocketed donors, they can do their own bit to tilt things back in their own direction by remaining engaged in the process — letting their member of Congress know what they think, becoming involved in organizations that represent and amplify their views, and joining together with like-minded Americans to make sure their voices get heard. It takes time and hard work, but these are tools available to every American no matter how modest their means.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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