Making Big Money A Political Liability In 2020

Justin Streight
Jun 7, 2019 · 8 min read

Twitter hosted a rare bipartisan moment a few days ago, when conservative Senator Ted Cruz said he agreed with liberal icon Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that former congresspeople shouldn’t be allowed to become lobbyists. When Cortez doubled down and asked Cruz to put out a clean bill, his answer was unusually concise:

Now, it’s questionable if banning former congresspeople from lobbying would be effective. It may well just push the system underground. Afterall, the extraordinary salaries lobbyists command comes from close, personal relationships, the kind that aren’t easily policed.

The Atlantic considers is a near impossibility too. Efforts in the past led to chaotic rebellions in Congress to prevent stricter lobbying rules. It’s difficult to legislate yourself out of becoming fabulously rich.

Americans know this.

And it’s not just lobbying. It’s Super PACs, foundations, political appointees, lavish fundraisers, and even the disgusting amount of time congresspeople spend begging for money (and not reading bills). It can be summed with the term big money, and calls for change like Cortez/Cruz’s are popular.

At the same time both Republicans and Democrats court wealthy donors, still seeing courting the rich as an unavoidable part of the game.

But there is hope.

Groups around the country working to change the system. Real change might only come when voters are willing to say ‘no’ to any and all candidates who shows even a hint of corruptibility. In the meantime, it’s worth paying attention to people who have made getting money out of politics their priority.

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

Issue One is a bipartisan group of former and current lawmakers dedicated to making the system more accountable to big money’s influence.

It has fought for ethics reforms, conducted investigations and released important information about dark money contributions and was largely influential in creating a bipartisan congressional committee to modernize the government and improve transparency. Likewise, it has supported several moderate reform bills.

It’s one of the many attempts to fix the broken system using the broken system.

Issue One is the result of a merger between two groups, Americans for Campaign Reform and Fund for the Republic. Like the name suggests, they see fixing America’s democracy as the most important issue in the federal government’s long list of things to fix. Unlike other groups, Issue One is using conventional means, like bills, information campaigns and… well, lobbying.

And yes, it is really, really easy to poke holes in an organization as ironic as Issue One.

It was founded using big money donations.

It has lobbyists like Tom Ridge and Dan Glickman on its board.

It also has big money donors like Arnold Hiatt on its board.

The founding organizations behind Issue One used a part of the tax code that allowed its donors to stay anonymous.

It’s also noticeable that the organization is now emphasizing foreign influence over the elections, with still so little done to reform domestic campaign finance. But creating a two-tier system that would allow rich American’s unfettered influence, while keeping foreigners out, seems like a difficult task in an age of globalization.

It’s like creating two doors the back room of a bank, one labeled “employees” and the other “robbers,” and then making sure the robbers’ door is always locked.

As much as the group’s goals and bipartisanship are admirable, they hesitate to take big swings, like publicly financed campaigns. And, perhaps, most importantly, for busy Americans who don’t have the time to go through the intricacies of who’s who, it all feels like a way to placate voters, not fix anything.

Photo by Tom Pottiger on Unsplash

While Issue One fights for small swipes at big money influence, Wolf PAC goes for the throat.

The Citizen’s United decision tied the hands of the FEC and opened the doors to Super PACs by providing a new interpretation of the first amendment of the constitution.

So, the Wolf PAC is trying to change the constitution with the 28th amendment.

There’s a couple of ways to get a constitutional amendment. The one that’s been used for the first 27 amendments was to get both houses of Congress to approve by a 2/3rds vote and then bringing it before the President. Currently, that seems unlikely without immense pressure.

The other way, the method the Wolf PAC is banking on, is through a constitutional convention. For that, the 3/4ths of the states need to approve a measure.

So far, 5 states have (California, Vermont, Illinois, New Jersey and Rhode Island), but they need another 33.

The founders put in the option of a state-led constitution convention in case the federal government became unresponsive to the American people. The Wolf PAC thinks that’s exactly what’s happened.

But many people are reluctant about a constitution convention.

The last one — in 1787 — changed most everything about the federal government. Critics say another convention might go the same way, ending the government as we know it today.

There’s little reason to think a convention couldn’t be limited in scope. As rare as it is at the federal level, state’s much more regularly change their constitutions using similar conventions.

And the reason national conventions are so rare is that whenever they’ve come close to having one, Congress felt the pressure and made the necessary changes. Making it look like Wolf PAC wouldn’t really have to hit 38 states to make a difference.

Still, that’s a long way to go.

Luckily, voters have a faster, more direct option.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy on May 26, 2015. He seemed to have no chance of winning, and he seemed genuinely unhappy about even running in his announcement. But he pledged to hold candidates accountable, and in keeping with the ideals of his campaign, he disavowed Super PACs and millionaire and billionaire donations.

In doing so, he gave voters the option to vote for a clean campaign, where even the appearances of a conflict of interest would be unacceptable.

At the time, the two front-runners for their respective parties were Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Both of those candidates set outrageously high fundraising goals, with Clinton alone hoping to get $2 billion for her run.

On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump gave conservatives their own choice when he announced his “self-funded” campaign. He did receive big money donations, but according the IBT in October, he said this:

“I am self-funding my campaign and therefore I will not be controlled by the donors, special interests and lobbyists who have corrupted our politics and politicians for far too long.”

He later summed up his position with the phrase “drain the swamp.”

The 2016 general election didn’t work out for any of the candidates affiliated by Super PACs, or dependent on a few millionaires.

It’s important to note that Trump’s promise to not be influenced by donors and lobbyists looks like it’s been effectively broken. Some of the wealthiest, most politically connected donors hold major cabinet seats, like Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Secretary of Education Betsy Devos.

Trump’s former EPA head Scott Pruitt just started his new life as a lobbyist for the coal industry, and the new EPA chief, Andrew Wheeler, recently was a lobbyist for the coal industry. Effectively making Trump’s promises about keeping White House staff off K Street look like toothless suggestions.

There are many, many more examples.

Still, he disavowed big money in the 2016, and he won. So, why aren’t more candidates running on an anti-big money platform?

Photo by Gaby Dyson on Unsplash

Running a campaign without a few millionaire donors is hard. Having millionaire donors is politically unpopular.

The answer for many Democratic candidates is to have it both ways — promising to stay away from big money, and then taking big money. Avoiding outright lies in a grey area of technicalities and vague definitions.

Some 2020 candidates are obvious about it.

Kamala Harris wrote in an email in February:

“Our campaign is not taking a dime from corporate PACs or lobbyists — and that was a very deliberate choice. Yes, it means we are leaving money on the table. But that’s ok with me.”

But according to her finance records, and this list put together by The Intercept, she’s taken contributions from lobbyists representing Verizon, Google, IBM, charter schools, Pfizer, Cemex, and many, many more. She’s also taken money from unregistered influence peddlers like William Castleberry (Facebook) and Matthew Gerst (CTIA).

Cory Booker swore off federal lobbyists but takes Super PAC and state and municipal lobbyist money.

Joe Biden also disavowed federal lobbyists, but announced his campaign at the home of David L. Cohen, who is the head of Comcast’s lobbying operation but, technically, not a registered lobbyist.

Beto O’Rourke has been relatively stringent about keeping big money out of his race, but he’s still received money from lobbyists, and his “No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge” seems dubious considering he was a top fossil fuel money recipient during his near-successful run against Ted Cruz.

There are two major candidates who have stood out with their anti-big money policies: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

But even with these two progressive icons, there are issues.

Bernie Sanders’ campaign is closely tied with the nonprofit Our Revolution, which can take large donations from anonymous sources.

Elizabeth Warren is backed by the PAC Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), which describes itself as the “Warren Wing of the Democratic Party.” The PCCC found 501(c)4 “social welfare” organization called the P Street Project, which can take unlimited, anonymous donations and influence elections like a Super PAC.

Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS is another 501(c)4. A bit more about them here at the Washington Post.

But, the PCCC’s million members and dedication to transparency, makes it very different from corporate PACs. And most would argue that the P Street Project isn’t the same thing as Crossroads GPS, even though it is the same thing — a 501(c)4.

Likewise, Bernie Sanders was supported by a special interest group, the National Nurses United union.

Does an organization fighting for good wages and benefits for nurses count as a special interest? Yes.

Does it deserve the same derision progressives have toward fossil fuel special interests? No.

It’s so easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

No one can remain squeaky clean in a dirty political world, but that doesn’t mean we should give up the difficult search for clean candidates.

There’s a clear difference between the Warren and Sanders campaigns and the Biden, Harris, and Booker campaigns. And there’s not enough of a difference between the Biden, Harris, and Booker campaigns and the Trump campaign, where he doesn’t need to cater to wealthy donors, but still does so.

But if clean campaigns fail — the groups fighting for a better democracy will still be there. Still working towards the most fundamental challenge America’s democracy currently faces.

Hopefully, they won’t be necessary after 2020.


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