The Hammer And The Post

Former Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay was convicted of violating campaign finance laws by a Texas jury last week.  If the conviction stands, he could face years in prison… possibly even the rest of his life.

Precisely what did DeLay do?  Back in 2001, he founded a political action committee called Texans For A Republican Majority (TRMPAC).  In 2002, he solicited $190,000 in corporate donations for this committee.  Such donations, known as “soft money,” cannot be given directly to candidates under Texas election law.  Delay was convicted of getting around this by giving the money to the Republican National Committee, which was allowed to contribute to campaigns in Texas.  DeLay’s office gave the RNC a list of seven candidates in need of funds.  This process was condemned as “money laundering” in the charges against the former Majority Leader.

DeLay made a lot of enemies during his bare-knuckle political career, but he has some defenders, too.  One of them recently denounced his conviction as “the criminalization of politics.”  That defense was offered by… the Washington Post.

There’s little doubt DeLay knew what he was doing when TRMPAC exchanged funds with the Republican National Committee.  He probably didn’t designate the seven Texas candidates by strolling into the RNC offices, sticking his thumbs in his britches, rocking on his heels, and loudly remarking that so-and-so was a fine candidate who could really use some financial assistance.  The editors of the Post concede that DeLay’s actions were “a clear end run around Texas law,” but continue on to say:

“It is less clear, however, that this behavior fits the definition of money-laundering or should be prosecuted and punished using that criminal offense. Corporate contributions to political candidates are a felony under Texas law. But at the time of Mr. DeLay’s actions, the state’s general conspiracy statute did not cover election law violations. Texas courts threw out prosecutors’ efforts to charge Mr. DeLay with a conspiracy to violate election laws – leaving only the charges of money-laundering and conspiracy to engage in money-laundering, of which Mr. DeLay was convicted Friday. In Texas, as elsewhere, money-laundering is defined as knowingly using ‘the proceeds of criminal activity,’ such as cash from drug deals.

But it was legal for corporations to donate to Mr. DeLay’s political action committee, so it’s fair to question how the cash sent to and from the RNC was transformed into criminal ‘proceeds.’ Mr. DeLay’s lawyers presented testimony from three current and former RNC officials that such money swaps were common transactions for political parties.”

The ostensible purpose of elaborate campaign finance laws that distinguish between “hard” and “soft” money is to keep corporations, and unions, from purchasing undue influence with politicians.  Leaving aside the vast number of other ways they can do that, without directly funding political campaigns, consider the valuable services labor unions provide through groundwork and organization.  They can make extremely valuable contributions without handing over burlap sacks full of money in dark alleys.  Media organizations routinely provide in-kind contributions worth millions without running afoul of campaign finance law.  They don’t even have to engage in open cheerleading for a favored candidate.  They just have to send all their investigative reporters to Wasilla, Alaska instead of Chicago, Illinois.

Money is but one form of influence, which the political class finds particularly unclean and vulgar.  The frenzied obsession with “getting money out of politics” results in a quixotic obsession akin to scooping water out of the ocean, and distracts from the countless other ways influence is peddled.  The McCain-Feingold fever for surgically creating “clean” campaigns has instead produced ungainly Frankenstein monsters, with political organizations dodging through a foggy maze of regulations, and people like DeLay stepping in the occasional bear trap.  The overall effect is to increase the opacity of elections, as campaign dollars pass through satellite groups and front organizations.  The volume of money surging through elections certainly hasn’t been reduced.

The Washington Post ran a longer piece on the DeLay trial on Tuesday, lamenting the Texas jury’s “detailed look at the Washington rat race of corporate fundraising and influence peddling.”  It relates stories of corporations lobbying for exemptions from SEC regulations, and speaks of a horrifying Power Point presentation that showed DeLay soaring off on private jets to meet with oil and gas executives at posh resorts.  Hmm… powerful interests securing special exemptions from regulations… politicians enjoying rides in private jets… does any of that sound familiar?  A quote from Thomas Jefferson about the urgency of crushing the “aristocracy of monied corporations” led off the Power Point show.  We ignore a lot of other aristocracies in our singular zeal to crush that one.

It’s hard not to notice that the people ensnared by our elaborate campaign-finance laws tend to be those with lots of dedicated enemies.  Tom DeLay constructed a pipeline to get donations around Texas law, but lots of plumbers have constructed far more elaborate mazes of piping in the shadows beneath him, and none of them are looking at prison sentences.  DeLay was known as “the Hammer” during his days on Capitol Hill, and a lot of angry bent nails have been gunning for him ever since.  Somehow a process that began with willing donors openly giving money to TRMPAC, and ended with the Republican National Committee openly and legally contributing funds to Texas campaigns, ended with one guy convicted of “laundering” money that was never knowingly used for illicit purposes.

If we want to get big-money corruption out of our campaigns, and cleanse influence peddling from the halls of our government, we need transparency and accountability.  Big Government will never possess either, because a gigantic State is opaque by definition – not even its administrators know exactly what it’s doing, or how bureaucracies reach their decisions.  Accountability demands a government small enough to focus on its duties, rather than its ambitions.  Neither of those goals will be furthered by putting Tom DeLay in prison for actions only marginally different from those carried out by dozens of his peers.  The cause of self-government is not furthered by requiring donors to drop balls of money into an immense Pachinko machine of regulations, and hope some of it gets to the people they wanted to support.  The sale of influence is a supply-side problem.