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Lawrence Noble: Calling in Favors? Post-election Demands on Government by Campaign Donors

By Lawrence Noble
Executive Director, Center for Responsive Politics

First, I would like to thank President and Mrs. Carter and The Carter Center for the privilege of allowing me to address you this morning. I must echo what Burt Neuborne said yesterday; as an American, I am proud to have President Carter represent the best my country stands for.

While after President Bush's speech last night our thoughts may be elsewhere this morning, I have been asked to address the post election demands on the government by campaign donors. It is an important subject because it goes to the heart of the issue of the problems posed by privately financed political parties campaigns, and elections. If, in fact, donors to political campaigns never expected or wanted anything, we would have a different view of privately financed political systems. But that is not the reality.

As was discussed yesterday, there is a simple truth: Running for office costs money. It is a fact of political life. In some elections, with small constituencies or limited media markets, it may be for the basics such as paying for campaign workers, traveling to meet voters, holding rallies or printing campaign literature, pamphlets and campaign posters. In other elections, with larger constituencies and larger media markets, it can be the costs of television and radio ads, polling, telephone banks, and the experts and infrastructure that allow a candidate to tailor his or her message to specific groups of voters or the changing issues in a campaign.

To give you some idea of the cost of running for office in the United States, in 2002, on average, a winner of a seat for the House of Representatives raised and spent almost $1 million, while the winner of a Senate seat spent on average about $5 million. In fact, we have already seen one Senate candidate spend over to $60 million dollars (Corizine-N.J.) and the two major candidates in the 2002 New York Senate race together spent almost $70 million.

As for the presidency, George Bush raised over a $100 million to just win the nomination of his party in 2000. It is expected that he will raise far more in 2004.

Where does this money come from? In some state and local elections in the United States, including the election for president, we have some form of voluntary public funding--where the candidates can choose to receive all or part of the money they need to run for office from the government. But these public funding schemes are available in only a relative handful of races and are limited in their reach and effect.

In many jurisdictions in the United States, there are limits on how much a person can contribute and restrictions on who can contribute. But this impacts how the candidates can raise the money and still requires them to go to private sources of funding, such as corporations and their executives, labor unions, and wealthy individuals. And candidates still have to spend a substantial amount of their time seeking financial support. The reality is that in the United States, as in many other countries, candidates and campaigns are primarily funded by private contributions. What most successful candidates know is that one of the central focuses of their campaign must to raise money. It is no different for the political parties. They exist to help their candidates get elected, and to do that they need money. Most candidates and political fundraisers will tell you that raising money is something they have to think about day and night; a political campaign's need for contributions is a constant hunger that must be fed.

So, on one side of the equation we have the campaigns, candidates, and political parties seeking money to reach the voters. On the other side, we have those eager--or at least willing--to give. It's obvious why the candidates want the money, but why do individuals, organizations, corporations, and unions give?

The debate about why major contributors give and what they want is often heated. Some argue that contributors give to support those with whom they agree on the issues. They will say that financially supporting a candidate or political party is part of a basic right in a democratic government. It is a way for them to put their money to use to help others speak out on their behalf.

But others argue--as I believe--that most large contributors give mainly for one reason: They want something in return and what they want is access to the candidate once the candidate takes office. These contributors want to get their phone calls returned when they have a problem with the government or are in favor or opposed to some legislation that will impact their business. They want someone to turn to for help if they should find themselves on the wrong side of a government investigation. They may have a business concern that can be addressed by an officeholder slipping a small provision into a large bill. They also may want to be made to feel like they are part of some inner circle that is close to the levers of power.

Undoubtedly, there are some major donors who give because they support what a candidate or political party stands for. They and the interests that represent may never pick up the phone and ask to talk to the officeholder to whom they were so generous. It may never cross their mind that they should now have some special access and be entitled to a friendly ear from the officeholder and her staff. But these people are the exception to the rule.

Most large contributors give because they DO want something in return. They do want the access. They do want to feel they have an advantage when they have a problem with the government or want their voice to be heard. Many large contributors will freely admit to giving as part of a cold business decision; it is an investment that they believe will bring profits down the road. It is a business expense no different than paying for lobbyists, lawyers, or research. Of course, others will say that it's an investment they believe they have no choice in making. They may fear that if their competitor is going to give to a politician, they will be at a disadvantage if they don't.

This is the basis for two models of campaign giving; one model envisions money being given voluntarily to buy access from the politician. The other model suggests that money is given reluctantly because the contributor thinks he or she has no choice. If they want to play the game and be heard in the corridors of power, they have to contribute. In the end, the effect is the same. Large contributions are seen as necessary to open doors and ensure a friendly hearing from officeholders. In fact, some businesses and industries approach it from a very practical standpoint; they give to both sides or whichever side is in power. Others will just give to those they believe will do them the most good.

Despite occasionally protesting that people who make large contributions are not given anything in return, political parties and some candidates raise contributions by explicitly selling the prospect that the contributor will be given special privileges. For example, in the United States, if you help raise $100,000 for a candidate, you may be granted membership to some inner circle where you will be promised special briefings by high government officials or an invitation to a lunch with a Senator. You may be given the name of someone at the political party who is there to listen to any problems you have with the government and to get you in touch with the right person.

So what does this mean for a political system? For one thing, many politicians find it demeaning. They have to go around collecting money before they get into office and then continue collecting if they win, even as they try to do the people's business. This takes time away from legislating or running a government. This, in and of itself, is often seen as a major problem.

But it also means that politicians have to be ready to deal with those large contributors who financially supported their campaigns and want something in return once the candidate they supported gets into office. And it is not just a matter of meeting the expectations of the contributors. Most candidates start thinking about re-election or running for another office the day the after the election they just won. In addition, there is always concern about keeping contributors happy so they will support other candidates of the party. This means that the favor you do today for a contributor is not just a payback for a past contribution, but it is also a down payment on a future contribution. Faced with having to keep large contributors happy, officeholders are under a tremendous amount of pressure to attend to the care and feeding of large contributors. At the minimum, this means they will put time aside for these contributors and spend energy and political capital to make them happy.

This, of course, comes at a cost to the rest of the officeholder's constituents. The time and energy spent on the needs of the large contributors comes out of the time and energy that they need to deal with the problems of all of their constituents.

In effect, it makes many politicians think of their constituents in terms of different classes. There are those who financially supported them and those who did not. When both come knocking on the door, which will they first see? When their interests collide, who will have the advantage?

Of course, many politicians will, in a given case, decide to do what is in the broader public interest, at the expense of their financial supporters. But, even when they do, the public often doesn't believe it. Many voters believe that those who paid for the officeholder to be elected will always win the battle for the heart and mind of the politician. They believe the contributing classes are drowning out the voices of the common citizen. This, in turn, leads to voter frustration and cynicism. It undermines the citizen's belief in the fairness of the government and undermines confidence in government decisions.

This view of the impact large contributors have after an election is not some radical theory espoused by the disenchanted. The U.S. Supreme Court has said a political system supported by large campaign contributions can give rise to the appearance, if not reality, that the big contributors want something in return for their generosity. This, according to the Supreme Court, can give rise to a system that is plagued by the appearance, if not reality, of corruption.

So, what can be done about it. There are many possible ways to try to address the problem. On the federal level in the United States, we work with a system of limitations on the amounts a contributor can give and prohibitions on who can give. Even the most ardent supporters of this system will say it has not solved all of the problems. There is general agreement, however, that a starting point for dealing with these issues is transparency.

In the United States, there are elaborate rules aimed at getting full disclosure of most of the money that directly influences our elections. The key to this disclosure is the focus on pre-election disclosure. With pre-election disclosure, the voters are armed with information that can help them to get an excellent idea of the interests behind a candidate. Who is financially supporting a candidate is an excellent indication of whom the candidate will be responsive to once in office.

My organization, the Center for Responsive Politics, is one of the organizations that uses the information candidates and political parties report to tracks campaign contributions, who is behind them, what interests they represent, and how they are impacting public policy. We then work with the press and other NGOs to make that information as widely available as possible.

In doing our analysis, we work with the assumption that many people give political contributions because they are trying to help an economic interest that is important to them. When corporations give money directly to candidates and political parties, we look at where their specific business interests lie. When an individual makes a contribution, we look at whom there employer is. We know in many instances individuals give because they believe (and are told) that it will help the company for which they work. In these instances, it is not the $500, $1000, or $2000 that a person gives that has the impact. It is the fact that 100 executives from one company gives a total of $200,000, or the executives from a whole industry give in total $2 million, that carries the impact.

We believe that it is critical for citizens to know who is giving to whom if they want to understand public policy decisions. Voters need to know that there is a very real possibility that financial support for a candidate can turn into a request for a favor once that person is in office. Are campaign contributions the determining factor in all decisions? Of course not. Are there numerous government decisions, which are not impacted by the desires of campaign contributors? Of course. But, are they a real factor in many decisions? Yes.

While there is a tremendous focus on pre-election disclosure, the reporting and analysis of the impact of campaign contributions really comes once the candidate is in office.

When the president makes an appointment to his cabinet or appoints an ambassador, we research and publish the campaign contributions of those receiving appointments. When the president or Congress comes up with an energy policy, we look to see whether those who will benefit were financial supporters of the president and those who vote for his policy.

Just last week, we published a short analysis of the political contributions of the companies who are bidding on possible post war construction work in Iraq. When the U.S. congress votes on a bill dealing with helping senior citizens pay for prescription drugs, we show the flow of the campaign contributions from drug companies and health organizations to those who supported the bill and those who opposed it. The same is true with attempts to limit how much someone injured from a doctor's malpractice can collect. Is it surprising that those who vote for such limits tend to receive political contributions from doctors and insurance companies, while those who oppose such limits tend to be supported by the lawyers who will bring these cases? Look behind the easing of environmental restrictions, and you will find industries that benefit having made large campaign contributions.

We call it "Tracking the Payback." To do this type of analysis, we do hours of research and use sophisticated computer programs to track contributors and who they represent.

To be clear, this is not a partisan issue and the Center is a non-partisan research organization. In the United States, both the Democrats and Republicans willingly take part in the same system and use similar tactics. When President Clinton was in office and the Democrats held congress, we undertook the same research and drew the same conclusions. This is not a phenomenon that is unique to the United States. Any political system that depends on private contributions to candidates will have to deal with the appearance and reality of the corruption that comes with the expected payback for those contributions.

Most societies believe that paying a government official for a favor in carrying out his or her official responsibilities is wrong. It is bribery. It is wrong because that public official holds a public trust and is supposed to do their duty without favor and based on their judgment of what their job requires. They are expected to use their judgment of what is in furtherance of the greater good when making decisions, not their judgment of who has given them the most money. They owe their time, energy, and expertise to the citizens from whom they derive their power to govern; not from whom they derived the money to run for office.

This is at the heart of the dilemma that faces any country that strives for free elections, a government free from corruption and citizenry with confidence in their leaders, and has a campaign system that is reliant on private funding. How do you draw that line between bribery, which virtually everyone believes is contrary to the public good, and campaign contributions being given in the hopes and expectations of some future benefit after the election? The ability to draw that line and the citizenries' trust in the fairness and validity of the line is critical for a healthy democracy.

I believe the first step in drawing that line is disclosure of those contributions. As Justice Brandeis said: "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."

Bring these contributions out in the open and let it be known that the connection between those who give and those who make and enforce our laws will be public. Let the press, nongovernmental organizations, and the public explore these connections between pre-election contributions and post election decisions. The public can draw their own conclusions as to how and why things happen. This is a first and very necessary step in making any government accountable to the people.

Thank you.


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