Why All the Political Money Might Not Mean Much

In a gridlocked Congress, Super-PAC donations might not be all that effective.

July 29, 2014
Money in Politics

"The President is appearing at this event only as a featured speaker and a special guest, and is not asking for funds or donations."

–From the fine print on an invitation to a July 22nd Super PAC fund-raiser just outside Seattle.

That hypocrisy-filled sentence should be chiseled on the walls of the Supreme Court and emblazoned in red on the website of the Federal Election Commission. There is no better coda to the Super PAC era than the laughable notion that Barack Obama had little knowledge and scant interest in the fiscal aspects of the dinner (minimum donation $25,000) sponsored by the Senate Majority PAC.

Now that Obama has put aside his long-ago scruples about Super PACs and embraces them even when he is not on the ballot, we are back to where we were in 1995. That was when Bill Clinton began holding White House coffees in the Map Room for major soft-money donors to the Democratic National Committee. While no funds were directly solicited, you had to give generously to the DNC to get face-time with the president. On one DNC-sponsored occasion – which even Clinton himself later admitted went too far -- politically active bankers met with the president, the secretary of the Treasury and the comptroller of the currency at the White House.

All this has been inevitable since August 14, 2012, a date that should be commemorated every year as Sheldon Adelson Day. That was when Paul Ryan, just 100 hours after being tapped as Mitt Romney's running mate, left the campaign trail and his congressional duties to meet privately with Adelson in Las Vegas. Any fig leaf of separation between candidates for national office and the Super PACs that support them vanished the moment Ryan arrived at Adelson's Venetian hotel and casino.

But -- as is almost always the case with politics and money – things are likely to get worse. Even though 2014 represents the second campaign cycle played out against the backdrop of anything-goes fund-raising rules, we have yet to fully experience the policy implications of the Super PAC era.

Part of it is due to the political limits placed on Obama's powers by an unyielding House Republican majority. By the time that most Super PACs were organized after the 2010 elections, Obama's days of legislative boldness were over and he was reduced to fighting to merely keep the government operating.

Despite their grumbling about the Dodd-Frank reform legislation, the titans of finance have had little reason to fear Obama. Even before the 2010 Citizens United decision, Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner tiptoed around Wall Street for fear of antagonizing the bankers who brought on the Great Recession. And, in contrast, to, say, Teddy Roosevelt who thundered about "the malefactors of great wealth," Obama has never seemed bothered by individuals lucky enough to have a net worth of nine or ten digits -- as long as they were Democrats.

The jury is still out on whether most Super PAC donors expect implicit quid pro quos in exchange for their political largesse. I tend to agree with Politico reporter Kenneth Vogel, the author of the recently published "Big Money", who likens Super PAC high rollers to meddlesome sports team owners. The primary motivations for their giving appear to be arrogance, ego and a passion to be part of the game. But it is naive to deny that some Super PAC donors look at politics like they look at life – through the selfish prism of "What's in it for me?"

Since the Robber Baron era, money has talked the loudest on Capitol Hill. Always thinking about the next election and panicked about phantom primary challengers even if they have safe seats, senators and congressmen are particularly susceptible to the blandishments of mega-donors.

Following this theory, political gifts to Super PAC barons should be embedded in the fine print of major congressional legislation. But despite all the earnest rhetoric about "Congress for sale," it has not been happening, for the most part.

It is not that senators and congressmen are secretly paragons of ethics. Or that major political donors refuse any recompense beyond good government. The reason for the lack of Super PAC scandal on Capitol Hill is simple: It is hard to put lucrative payoffs into legislation when there isn't any legislation.

By traditional standards, Congress has ceased to function. The Washington Post recently reported, "The Senate went three months this spring without voting on a single legislative amendment, the nitty-gritty kind of work usually at the heart of congressional lawmaking." While the article by Paul Kane placed the onus on the bitter relationship between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the underlying paralysis can be found everywhere on Capitol Hill.

The good news: Congressional gridlock has trumped Super PAC greedlock.

Marking up a tax bill in the Super PAC era would be the Special Interest Olympics. All the investigative reporters and all the watchdog groups in Washington could not possibly keep up with all the giveaways that would be added to the tax code. A major piece of domestic legislation – such as a long overdue infrastructure-spending bill – would be another vehicle for rewarding the generosity of selfless political donors.

But none of this is going to happen until a new president is elected in 2016. In fact, almost nothing is going to happen until we have a new president with a honeymoon period. In the interim, Congress will be reduced to ceremonial gestures and maintaining the minimal housekeeping functions of government. While ultra-conservative Super PAC givers may ideologically revel in congressional paralysis, it is hard to believe that many of them are benefiting economically from the ultimate do-nothing Congress.

So there is little to fear at the moment from Super PAC payoffs. Unless you worry at night about Congress naming a Post Office after Sheldon Adelson.

 
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
 

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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