The success of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign can be explained as a partnership between a great candidate and an idea whose time has come. The winning idea is simple: democratic government has cracked beneath the weight of special interest money.
Many average American citizens have decided to fight back via Obama’s candidacy, fueling his campaign with $32 million in January alone. With their relatively small donations, they are storming the barricades in protest against the special interest campaign dollars flooding government at every level – local, state and federal.
It has been difficult to stem the tide of special interest money because it takes so many shadowy forms. Much has been written about special interest contributions to political campaigns. Now they have invented new ways to influence the democratic process, such as independent campaign expenditures, expensive trips lavished upon public officials and the illicit use of charities and nonprofit organizations for political purposes.
The rise of independent campaign expenditures in California was the subject of a recent San Francisco Chronicle story by journalist Erin McCormick. McCormick pointed out that contributions to state legislative campaigns were capped at $3,600 per election by Proposition 34 in 2000. Undeterred, special interest groups now fund their own independent campaigns for or against candidates and spend unlimited amounts.
Independent expenditures have grown 2,700 percent since Proposition 34 was passed. In a classic act of chutzpah, former State Senate Pro Tem John L. Burton expressed his dismay at the practice in McCormick’s article. “It’s just a screwed deal,” he said. “There’s always a way to get around limits.”
While wiping away crocodile tears, Burton forgot to mention his connection to a notorious independent expenditure campaign waged during a 2006 California Assembly race. In that race, $800,000 in independent expenditures was paid out of a secret slush fund Burton had accumulated during his years as senate leader.
Another recent Chronicle article by McCormick tackled travel expenses: “California State Legislators spent nearly $700,000 in donations from corporations and special interests within the past three years to pay for international junkets, meals and lodging at domestic resorts and for entertainment and gifts.” Will a Sacramento “Travelgate” scandal further erode public confidence in the legislative process?
Special interests have long curried politicians’ favor with gifts. Sherman Adams, Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff, caused a stir and ultimately resigned after accepting a vicuña overcoat from a Boston textile manufacturer. An LA Times exposé revealed Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez’s Paris spending spree on Louis Vuitton bags and fine wines paid for with special interest money. Is it any surprise that California voters defeated a term limit reform initiative this month?
Reformers have also started to focus on a little-scrutinized practice with grave implications: politicians have begun to invade the sacred ground of nonprofit and charitable institutions for political purposes. Because charitable contributions are hidden from public review by law, public interest advocates worry that lobbyists are currying favor through non-disclosed contributions to politicians’ “charitable foundations.”
Rick Cohen, Executive Director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, has written a scathing indictment of what he calls “political philanthropy.” Cohen claims that these foundations arrange charitable contributions that are really intended to buy political influence. He cites University of Miami Law Professor Fran Hill’s condemnation of politicians’ foundations: “The nonprofit form is being abused to engage in transactions for influence that the parties would not want the public to know about. It breeds cynicism that undermines democracy.”
Lobbyists have become the scheming villains of the 2008 campaign narrative. Barack Obama has hoisted their severed heads at thronged rallies. America cheers.