Who's Buying Congress Now
November 03, 2006
Nancy Watzman is research and investigative projects director for Public Campaign. She also blogs at Muckraking Mom.
In these heady days before a close election, you’d have to be made of granite not to get caught up in the news of the political horse race. Which candidates are up or down and by how many points? Who has the most cash on-hand? Which party is going to win? What often gets lost in the coverage before the big day, however, is where all the money funding these races is coming from, what the special interests that give it will want in return after Election Day—and how that hurts ordinary families.
Consider the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which describes itself as a federation representing more than 3 million businesses. “There’s a phrase we like to use that sums up our philosophy: Politics comes before policy, meaning it's a lot easier to achieve your agenda in Congress when you elect the right people in the first place,” wrote William C. Miller, Jr., a vice president for the trade group in the trade journal Market Watch last week. The group has stated that it is spending tens of millions of dollars on a grassroots, media and get-out-the-vote program. That money comes on top of the millions in cash that its Political Action Committee, or PAC, and member companies give directly to candidates’ campaigns.
What does the Chamber want? For one thing, no hikes in the minimum wage, thank you. While some 23 states have already passed a hike above the federal rate of $5.15 an hour, and there are six initiatives on state ballots next Tuesday to do the same, the issue is also a perennial on Capitol Hill. National polling shows strong bipartisan support for a hike, but lobbies for the Chamber and other business clout have blocked it so far. This is bad news for the 14.9 million workers who labor for that amount at the Walmarts, McDonalds and other businesses near you. Fifty-nine percent are women, and one out of four are parents, according to the Economic Policy Institute. If they work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, that means they make less than $11,000, not exactly the kind of money you need to support a family.
Of course the minimum wage is far from the only issue affecting families in which the Chamber has a stake. Among many others, the group has been active in the curiously named National Coalition to Protect Family Leave, which has worked to weaken regulations governing the already limp family federal leave law. The 1993 law, which passed only after a decade of debate, huge opposition from the business community and two presidential vetoes, requires employers of 50 or more to offer unpaid leave of 12 weeks to employees for childbirth or serious illness. The U.S. is the only industrialized country that doesn’t require paid leave.
Among the Chamber’s targeted races—35 House and 12 Senate—are several on next Tuesday’s hot list, including Republican Sen. Conrad Burn’s troubled reelection fight in Montana, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum’s in Pennsylvania and Rep. Deborah Pryce’s in Ohio. Just these three candidates alone have collected a total of more than $6.1 million from business PACs.
Turn now to the oil and gas industry, to see another moneyed interest that has been quite successful in recent years in weakening environmental initiatives and gaining subsidies. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the two-term Republican senator from Texas, is considered to being a safe race next week. She’s raised $6 for every $1 her Democratic opponent has raised. Nevertheless, she’s collected more than half a million dollars from the oil and gas industry toward this year’s elections; in fact, she’s the top recipient of this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Hutchison has been a reliable vote for the industry’s interests, voting last year in favor of the energy bill that included $3.8 billion in tax breaks and subsidies for the industry at the same time as it was racking up record profits—and charging more at the gas pump. Other top recipients of the oil and gas industry’s campaign contributing largesse include several lawmakers who are facing unexpectedly tough races for re-election, such as Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. (Sense a theme here?) Both also voted for the subsidy-packed energy legislation.
Santorum also shows up as the top recipient of pharmaceutical campaign money this election season, with more than $350,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Santorum was one of the key drafters of the 2003 Medicare law that revamped the program’s pharmaceutical benefits to maximize profits for the companies and minimize coverage for many seniors. Billy Tauzin, the president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufactures of America and former member of Congress, told the Wall Street Journal, “We support folks who agree with us on the issues, and he’s been a strong and good supporter.”
While certain names may pop up again and again on the lists for special interest donors, that doesn’t mean that if all these races swing a certain way that American families can rest easy. With elections so close, many lobbyists are reportedly rethinking their giving patterns. “These things are done for a reason,” a GOP lobbyist told CongressDaily this week. “Except among the real die-hards, there’s a lot of hedging going on in these final days.”
Many of the big business lobbies traditionally throw more of their support to Republicans, but back in the days when the Democrats controlled Congress, the differences were not as extreme. More money is already flowing in greater amounts to Democrats. Contributions from corporate PACs fell by 11 percentage points in favor of Democrats from October 1 to 18, according to a recent analysis by The New York Times. The complete picture of this last minute change of heart won’t show up on federal disclosure forms until after Election Day. If Democrats take the helm, you can be sure that business lobbyists will be pointing to their support and demanding a return on their dollars.
When Congress is back in session, the likelihood that measures which make life easier for American families will get priority is low. Proposals that are good for American families—like increasing the federal minimum wage, passing paid medical leave, beefing up environmental regulations—will get passed over in favor of those that give back to big industry contributors. While rules exist requiring lawmakers to disclose their sources of campaign funding, these disclosure requirements don't do enough to hold them accountable for pushing policies that benefit their contributors.
Changing this dynamic requires revamping the way we run our elections, so that candidates could run without being dependent on special interest cash. Full public financing of elections, or Clean Elections, would help a lot. In Maine, where a Clean Elections system provides candidates the option to qualify for full public financing, 80 percent of the candidates for the legislature are running next Tuesday without looking over their shoulders at the pharmaceutical and big business interests. In Arizona, more than half of the candidates running in this year’s primaries followed the same option.
Clean Elections have been approved in seven states and two municipalities. It’s high time that such a system were adopted for candidates running for federal office. After all, families’ needs ought to matter at least as much as those of the pharmaceutical, oil and gas, and other special interests.