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Auction Block Politics

There is a widely acknowledged symbiotic relationship between donors and politicians that tends over time merely to reinforce and reward the natural political inclinations of both.
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The amount of political power that lawmakers wield has long been tied to their ability to make dollars rain down from political contributions. While no one would defend the crass trades sought by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, in some ways his crimes consisted of simply making the implicit arrangements that bind politicians and donors altogether too explicit. The blatant horse-trading alleged in the criminal complaint is shocking - especially Blagojevich's willingness to offer up state-awarded contracts - but is it really so different from the wink-nudge version that so often pervades politics?

For just one recent example, did the financial industry buy the votes for deregulation that led to the current economic meltdown, or did banking executives simply find a willing audience among politicians who were already inclined towards deregulation? There is a widely acknowledged symbiotic relationship between donors and politicians that tends over time merely to reinforce and reward the natural political inclinations of both, to the detriment of those outside the pay-to-play arrangements.

One tragedy of the current campaign finance system is that we will never really know how heart-felt the intentions of most politicians are. Indeed, most decisions, such as the multi-decade push to dismantle regulation of the banks, happen with little public attention. The failure to regulate is rarely covered with the rapt attention of a scandal, and so the public is only vaguely aware that the agenda has been set by forces with a line on the inside. At that level, it becomes difficult to sort out corruption from mere politics.

An article today in The Hill
documents the high fundraising expectations for leadership within the chambers of Congress and cites the current Senate Ethics Manual, which provides the ground rules for accepting contributions from a source requesting a favor, basing its advice on an ethics report from the 1950s: "[A] decent interval of time should be allowed to lapse so that neither party will feel that there is a close connection between the two acts." This rather quaint treatment of a profound challenge to the legitimacy of official acts provides scant comfort.

Even out-and-out dealmakers that disregard these simple precautions only rarely get caught. Most politicians are not arrogant enough to keep cutting deals once they are aware they are under investigation, nor clumsy enough to make the tit-for-tat as obvious as Blagojevich. In some ways, as Frank Rich suggests, his farcical blundering may have done us the favor of peeling back the curtain, allowing us see politics as the auction block it sometimes is.

And even in the most egregious cases, our criminal statutes are inadequate because without the assistance of witnesses or a wire (as they had in Illinois), it is difficult to prove intent. In the allegations concerning Sen. Stevens, for example, prosecutors charged him only with failure to report a gift. Showing that the money and the political favor -- whether a contract, earmark, tax break, public subsidy, deregulation or other action -- are causally linked is difficult for watchdog groups and media who monitor the issues as part of their jobs, much less the general public or prosecutors.

So what we have is a wide spectrum of decisions by lawmakers that occur without any meaningful oversight of their motivations, and a political system with fundraising demands that push every politician into the arms of the special interests. It is little wonder then that some particularly enterprising pols with few scruples, like Blagojevich, see politics as the money-making enterprise it can be.

The only solution to this problem is a structural one -- one that transforms the incentives of politicians and realigns their natural self-interest in their own political success and survival. A system of public financing for Congressional elections would allow a Member of Congress to vote their conscience without concern for the fundraising implications. And it would allow the public to know far more about whether a lawmaker's vote for financial services deregulation, for example, came first from their heart or their pocketbook.

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