Shocked, shocked, corporations find another way to give money to lawmakers

Pardon the sarcastic headline, but it seems we have to find blunter ways to call the U.S. campaign finance system what it is: Legalized corruption.

The latest illustration comes from a fine piece by reporter Eric Lipton in the Monday New York Times which reported that:

  • Dozens of members of Congress have started charities or foundations, named for themselves, that do good works in their communities.
  • The charities are supported by corporations with interests affected by the members.
  • The charities, while doing the good works, also promote the members. Hats and T-shirts with the elected officials’ names on them are given out at events, paid for by the charity. News stories associate the member with good causes their charities are supporting, turning the charities into sort of permanent campaign operations for the member.
  • Donors can give unlimited amounts to the charities. The donations are supposed to be fully disclosed, but often aren’t.
  • Corporate spokesters say they just want to help good causes. But — surprise, surprise — when the Times dug in they found examples of corporations making large gifts to charities run by particular key members of Congress just at a time when legislation of great interest to the corporations was moving through Congress.

The story did run on the front page of the Times, but doesn’t seem to be getting much notice or pickup. I fear we are beyond the ability to be scandalized by the number of pockets in the coats of our election officials into which those who benefit from special relationships to the member can stuff unlimited and barely regulated sums of the green stuff.

For those who don’t click through to it, here are a couple of key excerpts from the Lipton/Times piece:

“A review by The New York Times of federal tax records and House and Senate disclosure reports found at least two dozen charities that lawmakers or their families helped create or run that routinely accept donations from businesses seeking to influence them. The sponsors — AT&T, Chevron, General Dynamics, Morgan Stanley, Eli Lilly and dozens of others — contribute millions of dollars annually in gifts ranging from token amounts to a check for $5 million…”

And

“Despite rules imposed in 2007 to curb the influence of special interests in Congress, corporate donations to lawmakers’ charities have continued, thanks to a provision that allows businesses to make unlimited gifts to them. And while business executives say they want to give to a good cause, their pattern of spending — contributions that often are not disclosed, in apparent violation of ethics rules — suggests another reason.

Altria, the cigarette maker, for example, sent at least $45,000 in donations over a six-week period last fall to four charitable programs founded by House members — including Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, and Mr. [James] Clyburn, the Democratic whip — just as the company was seeking approval of legislation intended to curb illegal Internet sales of its cigarettes. An Altria spokesman said the donations were not related to the measure, which all four congressmen backed. (The other two are [Rep. Allen] Boyd, [Democrat of Florida] and Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan.)

Tom Williams, a spokesman for Duke Energy, acknowledged that the company participates in lawmakers’ charitable events in part to get access to them and push its agenda. ‘We are not apologetic about it at all: it is part of our overall effort to work with policy makers,’ he said. ‘Social settings are always a good way to get to know people.’”

And

“The lawmakers defend the donations, saying they have no influence on the politicians’ positions on legislation or policy. They also say that they typically do not serve on the charities’ governing boards or solicit contributions themselves.

‘There is nothing improper here at all,’ said Mark Hayes, a spokesman for Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, who helped found two Indiana nonprofit groups that are supported by corporate contributions. ‘They are simply causes he believes in.’

But some current and former lawmakers, as well as ethics officials on Capitol Hill, find the charitable donations troubling, calling them one of the last major unregulated fronts in the ‘pay to play’ culture in Washington. The donations typically far exceed what companies are permitted to give to candidates in campaign contributions.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 09/07/2010 - 11:13 am.

    Surprise, surprise – “we are beyond the ability to be scandalized . . .” Of course we are beyond the ability to be scandalized, the Supreme Court just approved “legalized coruption” in the Citizens United case. So what is the average citizen to do about it? Write a letter to the editor? Write to their Congressperson and protest? Not vote for the offending Congresspeople? And to what effect? That’s the question, isn’t it? Refer back to this article and the one in the New York Times after November and I’m willing to bet that just about everyone of the offending Congresspeople will have been re-elected.

    So what is the average citizen to do? Go out there and work for the candidates who don’t take this kind of money and who are being bullied by the sordid ads run by the business like Target and Best Buy who can now spend as much as they want, and in most cases, have no one know they did it or how much they spent on it.

    And when are we supposed to do this? Far too many people are dealing with finding a job, staying in their home, working a second or third job, coaching their kids team, etc., etc.

    I’m not saying don’t go out there and work for these candidates, but, having become the cynical person I have now become, don’t expect miracles. The average citizen is no longer a part of the equation in modern elections.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/07/2010 - 11:36 am.

    Thank God those corporate blackguards haven’t started sneaking politically motivated Trojan Horse vendor booths into our beloved “Great Get-together”, eh Eric?

    http://tinyurl.com/26bpmko

  3. Submitted by Andrew Zabilla on 09/07/2010 - 12:05 pm.

    Thomas,

    So you’re more of an “eye for an eye” than a turn the other cheek sort of guy, eh?

    The problem is both groups are taking eyes, but they aren’t each other’s; its our eyes they’re taking.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/07/2010 - 12:37 pm.

    “Corporate blackguards” has a nice ring to it. Seems fitting in this context.

    As for the booth at the State Fair, to paraphrase something I said in response to a Swift comment on today’s “Glean,” political hackdom has crossed party lines without cringing for decades, probably centuries. When money becomes the primary means by which one is elected to office, it becomes, not surprisingly, a primary concern, no matter who the candidate or what party or group s/he ostensibly represents.

    As we’re seeing in District 6, it costs millions of dollars to get yourself elected to a temp job (ideally) that pays less than $200,000 in an area where the salary may not be able to rent you an efficiency apartment, much less a home for yourself and your family. I don’t remember that being explained anywhere in the government textbooks we used to use at my school. The books were filled with charts about “How a Bill becomes a Law,” but rarely, if ever, mentioned the role of money as a primary means of shaping that law, not to mention deciding who gets elected to help in the shaping.

    Just out of curiosity, Eric – tax law isn’t my specialty, nor yours, either, I’d guess – are the contributions made by corporations to these charities tax-deductible? If so, the insult to democracy is doubled, at the very least.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/07/2010 - 05:23 pm.

    Ray– On the basis of a quick Google; they probably are (for a C corporation), although technically any value received in return for the contribution should not be deductible.

  6. Submitted by Clare LaFond on 09/07/2010 - 08:30 pm.

    At what point does democracy become oligarchy? Sigh.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/08/2010 - 06:04 am.

    We will never get campaign reform from pols who got where they are by working the system we have.

  8. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/08/2010 - 10:01 am.

    Clare–
    At the point where elections cost money, and one person has more money than another.

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/08/2010 - 01:45 pm.

    I wonder if the Tea Party might help liberal Dems and Greens fight for public financing of all federal level campaigns. Somehow, it seems as if this change might appeal to at least some of their number since it would separate both corporate and individual money from the job of running for office.

  10. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/08/2010 - 01:50 pm.

    The only surprise here is how low the market price of some of our legislators appears to be.

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