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…”
“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.’”
“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.”