Saturday, August 1, 2015

Political Contributions in the U.S.: Political Bribery Beyond Access

What exactly does a large political contribution do for a contributor? The standard line is that access is “bought.” Being far removed from the Washington “belt-way,” the American people have swallowed the line, admittedly naively. As of 2015, we can look at the proverbial “man behind the curtain” for a much more realistic grasp of the extent to which private interests seeking particular benefits even at the expense of the whole (e.g., increasing a deficit) corrupt the American political system.

Speaking in 2012, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter asserted, "we have one of the worst election processes in the world right in the United States of America, and it's almost entirely because of the excessive influx of money."[1] In 2015, both Carter and the current federal president, Barak Obama, lamented what Carter characterized as political bribery, “a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors.”[2]  No one is clean in Washington, Obama said at a news conference. We have to take the money to compete in elections and that obliges us. In other words, both presidents were confirming for us that major political contributors do indeed get more than access; the elected office-holders feel obliged to repay the contributors with benefits through favorable legislation or regulation.

Hence, Goldman Sachs was the largest single contributor to Obama’s 2008 campaign, and the financial reform law passed two years later steered clear of breaking up the five largest U.S. banks, which at the time had even more assets—a third more—as a group than they did in September 2008. Additionally, Obama backed off including even a public-sector health-insurance option after the health-insurance industry lobby objected. Had that industry contributed to his campaign? If so, did the companies that denied pre-existing conditions bribe the president to insure that the insured would still have to rely on those companies?

Bribery is a strong term; it is a stark indication that the United States are not cities on a hill—salubrious bastions of clean business and government in a corrupt world where bribery runs rampant. American CEOs cannot justifiably lament having to pay brides in other countries because the political contributions domestically are in fact bribes. Put another way, legalized bribery is still bribery even if the shiny veneer makes it more difficult to see underneath. Speaking in 2015, Carter’s recommendation was to make public financing of elections mandatory, hence limiting or expunging altogether private contributions. For this to happen, the U.S. Supreme Court would have to step down from its judicial doctrine that money is speech. The next question in need of a real answer may be whether the Court is subject to bribery, whether directly or through a power-elite.

1. The Associated Press, “Jimmy Carter Slams ‘Financial Corruption in U.S. Elections,” CBS News, September 12, 2012.
2. Paige Lavender, “Jimmy Carter Blasts U.S. ‘Political Bribery’,” The Huffington Post, July 31, 2015.