Money: The Mother's Milk of Politics

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”  — St. Paul

“Tis the season to be jolly…”

At least that’s what it’s supposed to be according to one of America’s most popular Christmas carols.

The reality for many in official Washington is otherwise, however.  Instead of visions of sugar plums, they are contemplating subpoenas and search warrants.  They worry that the footsteps on the front porch and the knock on the door are not those of family and friends, but those of the FBI.

Guilty pleas and indictments abound.  San Diego area Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham has pled guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes for steering business to defense contractors.  Lobbyist Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Congressman Tom Delay, has pled guilty to conspiracy to offer bribes to public officials and to defrauding Indian tribes who were clients of his public relations firm.  Meanwhile Mr. Delay, stripped of his position as Majority Leader in the House, is under indictment for money laundering in his home state of Texas. While the innocence of those who are under indictment or investigation is presumed, one fact is abundantly clear—special interest money is undermining the integrity of the American political system.  

Former Texas Senator Phil Gramm once quipped that “ready money is the mother’s milk of politics.”  Anyone who has ever run a political campaign understands the truth of that statement.  Television ads cost money.  So do political consultants, direct mail, and phone banks.  Notwithstanding the participation of volunteers, campaign staff are essential, and they usually don’t come free.  The reality of modern politics is that campaigns are expensive.  A candidate who can’t raise money can’t get out of the starting gate, much less across the finish line.  Money nourishes a political campaign the way a mother’s milk nourishes her baby.  The problem with milk, however, is that over time it can become sour. The evidence of that in the political arena can be found in the indictments, prosecutions, and pending investigations.

Here’s the sad truth about money and politics today:  Special interests “invest” in political campaigns as a “cost of doing business”, expecting that if they ride the right horse across the finish line, they will get a “return” on their investment.  Often, that return comes in the form of tax breaks, government subsidies, or some other form of preferential treatment under the law.  Campaign contributions are viewed as a mere “down payment.”  “Maintenance fees” are seen as a means of preserving one’s asset once it is in place.  Some politicians are higher maintenance than others. Some are content with box seats at the Super Bowl or the Kennedy Center. Others prefer junkets which include golfing at St. Andrews in Scotland. Still others, like Duke Cunningham, favor luxury accommodations on a yacht, rather than a hotel room in the District. Most of this is accomplished within the bounds of the law, the law having been drafted by the beneficiaries of the lobbyists’ largesse.  Of course some politicians remain above reproach, but they are few and hard to find. And some, like the “Duke”, get greedy and go too far.  He is Exhibit A to the fact that the truism heard often in the investment arena that “Pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered” applies with equal vigor in the political arena.

Attempts at restraining the corrosive effect of money on politics have proved largely unsuccessful.  Such efforts have focused principally on the system, not the people.  “Campaign finance reform” has been a miserable failure.  “Hard” money has been replaced by “soft” money, and limits on spending have been avoided through the use of “527’s”, most commonly associated with Swift Boats and billionaire activist George Soros.  Unfortunately, future attempts at external reform are likely to meet with the same fate.  As lawyers like to say, “Where there’s a law, there’s a loophole.”

Ultimately, if the American political system is to be successfully reformed, change must come from within, beginning with the people who serve. A bad system can be improved with good people, but bad people will corrupt even the best system. More laws and more law enforcement simply will not be enough. Institutions invariably reflect the values of the people who occupy them. Therefore, we need political leaders who believe that a public office is a public trust, who see themselves as servants of the people. We need men and women of virtue who are willing to put the good of their fellow citizens ahead of their own; people who will speak up for the poor and the weak and those in need; people who won’t favor the wealthy and the powerful; people who will do justice for rich and poor alike; people who have the strength of character to resist the temptation of money and celebrity; people who have integrity and humility.

Cynics suggest that such people do not exist in American society today.  Indeed, they maintain that such people never existed; that they are but fictional characters born of an “Ozzie and Harriet” age; that they represent an “idealized vision” of romantics out of touch with reality. American history refutes the cynics’ claim.  One only has to reflect upon the legacies of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Lee, Roosevelt, Reagan and a host of others to know that the cynics are wrong.  We need such leaders to step forward today.  Perhaps now, more than ever.