Book Notes: “Speaking Freely: Washington Insiders Talk About Money in Politics”
by Larry Makinson, Center for Responsive Politics, available at www.opensecrets.org, 163 pages, $15, softcover
Volume CIII, No. 10October, 2003
America’s campaign finance system is a disgrace. It’s often been called legalized bribery, though you won’t find many politicians who will agree. But few of the pols who consented to be interviewed for “Speaking Freely” had many kind words to say about it. One former senator told author Larry Makinson he thought “the role of money in politics today is…the most destructive force in American politics.”
Only 16 senators and representatives granted interviews for this book, and then only after they had left office. They couldn’t admit what most Americans know instinctively: political money buys influence, since buying or selling votes (called “quid pro quo” in legalese) is punishable with jail time. So only a few pointed to examples (involving others, of course) where contributions appeared to sway votes. All agreed that large contributors get only “access” to politicians in exchange for their generosity, but clung to the denial that this gave donors political influence.
However, analyses by the publishers of “Speaking Freely,” the Center for Responsive Politics, where Makinson is a Senior Fellow, show close correlation between how legislators vote and who donates to their campaigns. You can learn the details of your own representative’s and senators’ funding and voting patterns at CRP’s Web site, www.opensecrets.org.
The first edition of “Speaking Freely” was compiled in the mid-1990’s. It contained reflections by two dozen outgoing members of Congress and was one of CPR’s most popular publications. This new edition couples new interviews with politicians with comments by directors of business, union and ideological Political Action Committees (PAC’s) as well as by a few of the multi-millionaires who contribute to political campaigns. Readers will find their varied slants interesting, especially the views expressed by the founder of EMILY’s List, the PAC devoted to electing more women candidates.
Most of the politicians hated the enormous amounts of time they had to divert from legislative business for raising the ever-growing amounts of needed campaign funds. Indeed, several politicians have chosen to retire rather than participate in the grueling money chase.
Some noted that the need for money has led the major parties to recruit wealthy individuals who can finance their own campaigns. What’s more, the high cost of campaigning makes it difficult for lower-income people to run. As a result, the concept of the House of Representatives as “the people’s house” is eroding (the Senate has long been loaded with millionaires).
Also, as one former congressman said, accepting large campaign contributions “does eventually cost taxpayers money that it might not otherwise…Little favors get stuck into bills that may not be in the taxpayers’ long term interest, or their interests for a balanced budget.”
The views of PAC directors helps round out the political money picture from the supply side of the equation. “Speaking Freely” notes that while the labor movement is heavily outspent by business interests, union PAC’s often have a higher profile among Republicans, who receive a smaller portion of their largesse.
Many reformers would have liked to end the flow of private money into political campaigns altogether. Unfortunately, that’s not about to happen any time soon. “Speaking Freely” predicted that the recently enacted Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 would do little to end money’s enormous influence on American politics. This forecast is being validated almost every day by news reports of record-breaking contributions to candidates for next year’s presidential race.
One of the best reasons why ordinary Americans should vote, contact their politicians and contribute to PAC’s was summed up in “Speaking Freely” by a director of a major corporation’s PAC. “People today,” he said, “have been very well educated that many of our issues are regulatory, many of our issues are political.”
Government policies affect us in many ways. When we fail to get involved, we grant unopposed political influence to other interests – usually our adversaries. So it’s still important to see that PAC’s representing our interests are properly funded. Sadly, musicians’ PAC’s are shamefully puny compared not only to businesses’ funds but even to those of other unions.
In 2002, Local 802’s PAC, Tempo802, took in just under $14,000, compared to about $41,000 by the AFM’s TEMPO. Tempo802 donated all of its receipts to the campaigns of state and federal candidates who supported our interests. The AFM diverted about half of TEMPO’s revenues to various expenses. This may be perfectly legal, but it speaks volumes about the Federation’s commitment to representation of musicians everywhere. Some things never change.
I urge all musicians to heed 802’s appeals for contributions to Tempo802. As for TEMPO, let your conscience be your guide.
John Glasel was president of Local 802 from 1983 through 1992. “Speaking Freely” is available from Local 802’s library.