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The Money Race: Politicians Win, You Lose

Allow me to interrupt the Democratic victory parade for a moment to point out that the raising of political money isn't the whole story. It's what happens afterwards that should command our attention.
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Money money money -- it's the talk of the political world right now. Who raised the most? Who had the most donors? Which party raised more?

The answer to the last one is the Democrats, who crushed the Republicans in fundraising for the first quarter of 2007. But allow me to interrupt the victory parade for a moment to point out that the raising of political money isn't the whole story.

It's what happens afterwards that should command our attention.

A perfect example: the potential $10 billion oil industry windfall made possible by an omission in the offshore drilling leases agreed to in 1998 and 1999.

The Bush administration's response to what the Interior Department's Inspector General has labeled "a jaw dropping example of bureaucratic bungling" has been exactly what you would expect: do nothing and let the oil companies keep the money. Inspector General Earl Devaney called the administration's inaction on the mistake "shockingly cavalier."

The Democrats, on the other hand, pledged to fix the blunder as part of their "First 100 Hours" campaign. And, in fact, the House has already passed a bill to that effect.

But over in the Senate, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Diane Feinstein of California have suddenly gone all wobbly, and are leading an effort to water down the bill. Both of them, not coincidentally, are recipients of political donations from -- can you guess? -- oil companies. In fact, Bingaman pockets more oil money than any other Senate Democrat. And here is the quid pro quo he gave to the oil industry:

"The way I would like to proceed," he said, "is to find something that the administration thinks will pass muster."

Really? If what passes muster with the administration is what passes muster with the American people, Bingaman would still be in the minority in the Senate.

Feinstein, meanwhile, has endorsed the version favored by the Bush administration, which is to ask the companies -- very nicely, I'm sure -- to renegotiate, and, in exchange, extend their current leases without bids.

Does anybody really believe that no-bid contracts for oil companies already raking in record profits were what the American people voted for in November? If they wanted a Senate that opens the Treasury to Big Oil and pleads helplessness when asked to exercise real oversight, voters could have left the Republicans in charge.

This story offers us a glimpse into the other side of political money. The one where the oil industry spills gobs of cash all around Washington -- including $72.5 million spent lobbying Congress last year -- and politicians return the favor with mega-billion dollar thank you notes, then have the gall to pretend that all that money doesn't make a whit of difference when it comes to decision-making time.

According to Bingaman, the six-figure contributions he receives from the oil industry in no way "affect my view" on the drilling leases issue.

Feinstein's spokesman offered a similar denial. As did the spokesman for Sen. Pete Domenici who, when not pressuring U.S. Attorneys, is the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee -- and a major recipient of oil industry cash: "At no time do campaign contributions affect Sen. Domenici's decision-making," said the spokesman.

Do they really expect us to believe that the heads of the oil companies donate all that money out of the goodness of their hearts and their love of representative democracy, and that Bingaman, Feinstein, Domenici and their cohorts are able to completely cut themselves off from feeling indebted to those who fill their campaign coffers? These pols are the political equivalents of Carmela Soprano -- enjoying the spoils while denying the dirty business that makes the spoils possible. On second thought, at least Carmen allows a moment of doubt to creep in now and then. Do our politicians?

The media often treat the money race like a contest in which the total raised is the end of the story. But it's only the beginning, and until more light is shone on the paybacks, the real loser will continue to be the American people.

For now we need to turn the searchlight on Senators Bingaman and Feinstein. Otherwise, we'll have to rubberneck at yet another wreck piled up at the intersection of money and influence.

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