“Priceless” is a TV documentary that was aired on many public stations. It does a fine job of tracking the appalling cost to America’s well-being caused by our campaign finance system. For updates go to http://www.pricelessmovie.org/air-dates/
DEEP BACKGROUND: HOW THE GAME OF POLITICS AND CAMPAIGN FINANCE IS PLAYED
Back in 2009 when the U.S. Congress was working on the health care bill that became known as Obama Care, it was barely noted in the press that Max Baucus, Democratic chair of the Senate Finance Committee, was using his power to block any testimony from advocates of “Medicare for All” - or of any single-payer health care system. The reason wasn’t hard to find. Eight of the Montana Senator’s top ten campaign contributors since 2005 were health care companies.
Not surprising, then, that the bill that finally left the committee heading for passage and the law that it ultimately became has been a boon to health care special interests while only partially accomplishing its goal of universal health care. In the years since, the Obama Care program that Baucus midwifed into creation has forced millions of people to purchase overpriced and underperforming insurance services that face little competition, all while protecting the pharmaceutical industry by barring Medicare, the largest single purchaser of pharmaceuticals, from negotiating bulk purchase discounts while providing no mechanism to prevent massive increases in drug prices.
For much the same reason – campaign money – it took a major at-the-White-House-gates demonstration by protestors before the Obama White House would allow any advocate for single-payer care into its very public deliberations, and then as a late-comer. In the end, the White House fought alongside Baucus for severe limitations on health care reform despite polls revealing that a majority of Americans favored Medicare for all.
Not long ago, the American Academy of Neurology decided it needed to get into this game and formed a campaign finance fund called BrainPac. The rest was smooth sailing. "Nothing has put the Academy at the table like Brain PAC has," admitted Michael J. Amery, the Academy's legislative counsel. "We literally did not exist in the eyes of Congress before the PAC was created."
Here at Fix Our America, we believe it doesn’t matter whether you personally support or disdain the health care outcome. It doesn’t matter your political affiliation or ideology. What matters is that this is the way the game goes in a system that demeans the word “democracy” and which behind closed doors demonizes the concept “the will of the people.” Who can follow the will of the people when the will of special interest money, without which you can’t get elected, is what it takes to play in the game of politics in the first place? Within that context, the real politics game becomes fooling and misdirecting the people and keeping all of us from a fair presentation of important choices on all issues, not only on healthcare.
Here are two nasty and stark realities of American political life:
• Most legislation is written by lobbyists. Most lawmakers rarely read what they are voting on. They lack the time to read because they are so preoccupied by fund-raising, and they lack the interest because they are being swayed in how to vote by donors and by party leaders who are even more beholden to the donors (you don’t rise in the system unless you are a superb fundraiser).
• Money buys its greatest influence behind the scenes. From an online book review: “Using a national analysis of state legislators, Lynda Powell, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, documents the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which money buys influence – from setting a party's agenda, to keeping bills off the floor, to adding earmarks and crafting key language in legislation.
“In her book, The Influence of Campaign Contributions in State Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2012), Powell argues instead that the real power of money is exerted long before the roll call. ‘The question is, what went into these laws,’ says Powell. ‘The wording of just a sentence or two or the addition of an earmark makes all the difference to a special interest group. For other contributors, the goal may be to preserve the status quo and prevent a bill from coming to a vote at all.’"
A 2000 poll conducted by Lake Snell Perry and Associates involving 1,000 voters and 200 donors revealed that 54% of campaign donors got to speak directly to a major elected official about issues that concerned them compared to 9% of voters who sought the same face-to-face contact. Thus, the tiny minority donor class has far more ability to influence government policy than the rest of us.
How else but via the power of campaign money could an insane policy of ending Depression-era safeguards against bank and Wall St. speculative gambling in derivatives and commodities and in high-risk loans have passed Congress during the Clinton administration? Both parties drank the money Kool-Aid and conspired to indulge the huge-campaign donors of the financial industry with the moronic non-regulation that brought on the bank crash and the Great Recession with it high unemployment of 2008-9, in which the country still significantly flounders.
The money bought not only deregulation; it also bought a massive bailout of Wall St while ignoring Main Street and total absence of criminal prosecution for massive criminal acts from both the Bush and Obama administrations, each heavily dependent on campaign dollars from the financial sector. Or as stated by William K. Black, one of the key regulators sent in to salvage the remnants of the savings and loan banks during the Reagan years, for which many bankers went to jail: "We've had the greatest explosion of white-collar crime in history and the weakest criminal justice response."
As just one example of the consequences of no prosecution, take the many billions in losses Chase bank took in 2012 on its derivative funds, which it then felt perfectly immune to lie about to regulators and stockholders, even going so far as to change its accounting methods to hide the losses a la Enron.
The mass murder of elementary school children and educators in Newtown, Conn., churchgoers in Charleston, SC, people enjoying their evening in Orlando, Flor., and our police officers in Dallas, Tex., denote another frightening reality about the U.S. brought about by the influence of money over our political system. The level of mass murder we experience is usually seen in war-torn and segmented Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakisatan and Syria, but our political class, in response to special interest money, has prevented all meaningful attempts to prevent these tragedies. As one magazine pointed out at the time of the Newtown shooting, "Since 1982, there have been at least 61 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Of the 139 guns possessed by the killers, more than three quarters were obtained legally. The arsenal included dozens of assault weapons and semiautomatic handguns.” Four years later, we can add at least 10 more mass murders, many carried out with legally obtained weapons.
How to explain this particular form of collective insanity, where our lawmakers continue to offer "thoughts and prayers" and moments of silence, anything to avoid looking at the role of campaign money in putting battlefield weapons in the hands of civilians? Given that the majority of the American populace supports strict controls on sales of assault rifles like the ones deployed so devastatingly in Dallas, Newtown and in other recent mass murders, given also that half the members of the National Rifle Association also support such controls and that a sizable number of conservatives do as well, how is it that fast-fire, high-round semi-automatics are are so readily and plentifully available?
Look no further than the savvy role the NRA brass has played in politics for decades. Financed by weapons manufacturers, the NRA has devised a dual strategy of buying gun-control blocking lawmakers while threatening to provide sizable amounts of campaign financing to the electoral opponents of any lawmaker who strays from the NRA gospel that all guns and all ammunition are good for you; also, that no background checks need be made on gun sales made outside formal gun stores. Since most lawmakers support gun ownership and hail from districts where gun ownership is strongly favored – 89% of the overall public supports private gun ownership – the threat boils down to seeking to enforce rigid adherence to every type of gun the NRA's gun-making financiers want to sell.
Hence, for a lawmaker to support gun ownership in general but move to vote to restrict or ban the types of weapons used in the mass murders, brings a genuine threat of NRA money in his or her district or state accompanied by TV commercials along the lines of: “Did you know that the NRA says Congressperson (fill in name) does not support the right of Americans to arm and protect themselves against the criminals out there?”
According to Source-Watch.com., the NRA spent upwards of $24 million during the 2012 presidential cycle to enforce its rigid doctrine, including $16.8 million spent through its Political Action Committee, almost exclusively for negative ads against candidates who displeased them. The NRA spent another $7.45 million through its Institute for Legislative Action, its lobbying arm that warns lawmakers of the electoral consequences of bucking the NRA. For the NRA, the PAC money goes a long way in intimidating lawmakers from even considering votes that might make them an NRA election target.
To see the impact of this strategy, look no further than the December, 2015 vote in the U.S. Senate on a measure to prevent terror suspects from purchasing guns, which failed 45-54. Senators who opposed the measure received 30 times as much money from anti-gun control groups and Senators who voted for it. Similar attempts to limit terror suspects access to guns and require universal background checks, both widely supported by the American people, failed to pass the Senate again in July 2016.
Examples of money-bought politics are as endless as the federal and state budgets. The top 25 federal contractors have spent $1.2 billion on lobbying and contributed over $150 million to PACs since 2005, which may seem like a ridiculous number. But it's paid off. Over the same period, these contractors have received $1.6 TRILLION in business, a return on investment of $1,171 for every $1 spent. You can look at virtually any political decision and vote and find the money trail.
Here are a few examples by industry or topic derived mostly from the fine work of two organizations that track the specifics of money-bought politics, MapLight.org and OpenSecrets.org. Other superb sources are the Sunlight Foundation and Follow the Money.
- Big money has taken a strong position in favor of major trade deals like the TPP even as the American public remains skeptical. Between October 2008 and September 2014, industry groups, nonprofits and corporations that came out in favor of the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) giving President Obama more latitude in trade negotiations contributed over $218 million to members of the Senate when the TPA was considered. Industries opposing the TPA spent a comparatively small $23.2 million. Small wonder, then, that TPP remains likely to pass despite opposition from the presidential nominees of both parties.
- The Senate has actively stood in the way of attempts to address climate change and improve the environment on behalf of their major donors in the gas, energy and coal industries. In November 2015, the Senate passed Joint Resolutions 23 and 24, which, together, would prevent the EPA's Clean Power Plan to regulate carbon and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Each measure passed 52-46, but was vetoed by the president. Supporters of the resolutions received an average of 17 times more in contributions ($75,802) as opponents ($4,464) over a six year period ending March 31, 2015.
- Moreover, while scientists have long since reached a consensus on the realities of climate change, in January, 2015, a measure to express the sense of the Congress that "human activity significantly contributes to climate change" failed in the Senate 50-49. Opponents of the measure received an average of $259,314 from the oil and gas industry, seven times more than the average $36,759 received by supporters of the measure over the same period.
- House GOP leadership, egged on by over $10 million from petroleum and natural gas industries and support from the Senate, has continued to press the issue of oil & gas drilling, including voting to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline on 10 different occasions, sometimes tying it other more essential legislation in the hopes of escaping a presidential veto. When the House approved the 10th attempt 270-152 on February 11, 2015, representatives who voted for the bill had received 13 times as much money from the oil and gas industry and representatives who voted for it. Meanwhile, the top five refinery companies and their parent companies, Valero, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66, and Shell / Saudi Aramco spent $58.8 million lobbying Congress in 2013 and 2014.
- The Pentagon is by far the largest customer and consumer of fossil-fuel based energy in the world - a reality that creates huge logistic issues and costs lives in protecting vulnerable fuel transport, as it did in both Iraq wars and has in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Congress moved vigorously in June, 2012, to stop the Pentagon's plan to invest in renewable energy resources, with a sizable number of Democrats joining a solid front of Republicans in seeking to stop the plan. The charge in the Senate was led by Oklahoma Republic James Inohfe who in recent elections was blessed with $491,000 in donations from the the fossil fuel industry, of which $44,000 came from the ferociously anti-sustainable energy Koch Brothers oil company. The industry as a whole, of course, is one of the three leading campaign financiers among major industries.
- Buried in the January, 2013, "fiscal cliff" deal with little notice by the media was $200 billion in giveaways to large campaign donors that made a mockery of the concept that the rich would pay more in a meaningful way. As just a few examples, Goldman Sachs, often criticized as the epitome of an unpunished Wall St. ripoff outfit, got $1.6 billion in tax free financing for its massive new headquarters. Banks in general were given $9 billion in exempt taxes on offshore loans. Certain other U.S. corporations that are big donors got another $1.5 billion waived in taxes owned on offshore profits.
- Campaign donations to both parties have allowed the big banks to pull off the greatest financial sleight-of-hand in human history. Unbeknownst - we bet - to almost all of you who read this, the federal government has allowed the banks to park trillions in derivatives in subsidiaries insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Should matters go terribly wrong, the government could be on the hook for up to $72 trillion banked by JP Morgan Chase, $53 trillion by Citigroup; $74 trillion by Bank of America, and $44 trillion by Goldman Sachs.
- Why are taxes so complicated and so expensive? Because it benefits a private industry to keep it that way, of course! Congress could long ago have passed a bill that would allow the IRS to handle most of the tax filing process for us, but this would cut into the profit margin of companies that provide tax services. Five of the largest companies and organizations representing tax preparers spent $35 million lobbying Congress between 2011 and 2014.
- A key funding mechanism of Obama Care was the tax on medical devices, supported by the National Physicians Association and expected to raise $26 billion over ten years. The medical device industry immediately made it a target for repeal, with the House supporting it's repeal in a H.R. 160, the Protect Medical Innovation Act, which passed 280-140 on June 18, 2015 with the support of 46 Democrats. Ultimately, the tax was suspended for two years in the 2015 omnibus budget bill, a favorite tactic for special interests giveaways. The defeat of this tax demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining taxes or regulations on specific industries that can spend nearly unlimited funds on a topic few others prioritize but which may be important. Industries that sought repeal of this tax gave $19.5 million to members of the House over a two year period ending in September 2014. The top ten companies alone spent $109.7 million lobbying Congress between passage of the tax in 2012 and the House vote in 2015. Is it any surprise our leaders backed down in the face of that entirely legal onslaught?
- With all the chest-thumping about Medicare costs, a bipartisan group in Congress has repeatedly blocked the Medicare administration from negotiating billions in drug costs savings per year by forbidding it to buy in bulk and to use its discretion about purchasing generic drugs. As just one example, in January Congress saddled Medicare with $500 million in unnecessary costs over two years by giving Amgen a two-yer extension on proprietary rights to an expensive drug used in dialysis. And Congress forced Medicare to pay $2,000 a dose for the macular degeneration drug Lucentis when it's equivalent generic, Avastin, is available for $50 a dose. Pharmaceutical companies rank among the top three campaign donating industries.
- Similarly, an amendment to a Senate bill offered by John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2012 would have allowed importation of less-expensive prescription drugs from Canada and was defeated 43-54. Senators who voted ‘NO’ on this amendment received on average 2.8 times as much ($98,054) in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical manufacturers as those who voted ‘YES’ on this amendment ($35,558).
- When voters try to go around lawmakers to take on drug prices directly, the pharmaceutical industry hits back, hard. By March of 2016, drug companies had already contributed $49 million to fight a ballot initiative in California intended to lower the price that state agencies pay for drug, far more than the $4.3 million contributed by the lone financial supporter, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
- Defense contractors spend on both sides of the aisle and often receive bipartisan support for their priorities. For example, when S. 754, the controversial Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) to make it easier for the government to get access to and analyze data, came to a vote in the Senate on October 27, 2015, it passed 74-21. Supporters had received, on average, just over $121,000 from defense contractors who stood to receive huge contracts to analyze the data and provide related services. Opponents received less than half as much money, at nearly $52,000. Fifteen Senators raised more than $200,000 from these industries, with all voting yes except one who did not vote.
- Between 2011 and 2014, the top five contractors for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spent $107.6 million lobbying federal agencies and another $7.4 million in contributions through PACs to Congressional candidates. In that same period, the contractors received $8.9 billion in federal contracts from the DHS alone.
- Defense contractors don't just use this influence to increase their business, they also use it to fight each other. When the Air Force considered competing bids to design and build the next stealth bomber, a contract worth at least $55 billion, defense contractors squared off - and opened their checkbooks to start massive pr campaigns, invested millions in their PACs and hired more lobbyists. And while Boeing and Lockheed Martin ultimately lost this battle, the money wasn't entirely wasted as Congress is sure to reward them down the line.
- In July, 2012, the California state Assembly passed a measure that would have allowed school districts to more quickly to remove teachers found to be sexually or physically abusive with students. In the state Senate, however, the bill was killed in committee by Democratic legislators deeply beholden to the teachers union for campaign financing. Not even pressures from a majority of other Democrats could extract the bill from the committee.
- In January, 2015, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) held a hearing on the FCC's attempts to regulate internet service providers and ensure net neutrality while introducing legislation. In the previous cycle, both Representatives had received significant amounts of financial support from employees and PACs of the top internet service providers AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon Communications, totaling $99,500 to Rep. Upton and $56,800 to Rep. Walden.
- In April, 2012 a bill restructuring the Federal Communications Commission's rule-making process in favor of the dominant media companies passed the House, 247-174. The measure was supported by AT&T, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and Verizon Communications, all of which are major contributors to the bill's 10 House sponsors. Here are the sums which key committee members pushing the bill received from July 1, 2009–June 30, 2011 (and please note that in years Democrats are in charge of the House, the industry has been just as successful in buying their support; in fact, in its greatest coup, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the industry got both parties in Congress to back its monopoly agenda and it bought the Clinton Administration's support as well). •Greg Walden (R-Ore.): Comcast ($30,500), CenturyLink ($25,500), AT&T ($13,500), the National Association of Broadcasters ($13,000), Clear Channel Communications ($11,800). •Joe Barton (R-Texas): Comcast ($17,500), Verizon Communications ($10,500), Time Warner Cable ($10,000). •Charlie Bass (R-N.H.): National Cable & Telecommunications Association ($15,000), Comcast ($14,650), DirecTV Group ($14,400). •Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.): Comcast ($13,500). •Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.): AT&T ($13,000), Comcast ($11,000), National Cable & Telecommunications Association($11,000), DirecTV Group ($9,000), T-Mobile USA ($9,000). •Lee Terry (R-Neb.): CenturyLink ($30,450). Telecom Services & Equipment ($61,450) and Telephone Utilities ($56,000). •Bob Latta (R-Ohio): National Cable & Telecommunications Association ($9,000), AT&T ($8,000). •Steve Scalise (R-La.): National Cable & Telecommunications Association ($12,500). Interest groups from Cable & satellite TV production & distribution as a whole ($23,500). •Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.): Comcast ($10,500).
- A revealing look- back. In 1996 the Telecommunications Act was touted by Congress as a means to increase competition in the industry, decrease prices and improve service for the public. In reality, the new legislation deregulated the industry and enabled large telecommunication corporations to merge with one another and increase prices at the expense of the public. Telecommunications corporations contributed $3.5 million to members of the Congress in 1995. The two most enthusiastic supporters of the new legislation and top beneficiaries were Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler, who received $103,165 from telecom PACs, and House Telecommunications and Finance Subcommittee Chairman Jack Fields, who received $97,500.
- During his campaign for the Republican Presidential primary in 2012, Newt Gingrich’s rise in the Republican contest was made possible by multi-billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who donated $10 million to a pro-Gingrich Super PAC. Gingrich openly admitted Adelson’s support came down to a single issue: Israel. Adelson, who hardly conceals his disdain for Palestinians, is an ardent supporter of Israel taking over the occupied territories and driving Palestinians from the land – a policy the U.S. has adamantly opposed through every administration. Over the years Gingrich had called for fair treatment of the Palestinians. After Gingrich took Adelson’s money he adopted the most extremist anti-Palestinian stance of the Republican presidential field, calling the Palestinians themselves an "invented" people.
- The UN’s World Health Organization is encouraging smokers around the globe to ditch their cigarettes, if only for 24 hours, to mark "World No Tobacco Day," an annual event designed to promote a tobacco-free lifestyle. In the U.S., big tobacco companies, a major source of campaign money, have been successful in ensuring that Washington doesn't join in. Helping is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor whose top contributor ($146,500) since 2004 has been Altria Group, the world's largest tobacco company. In the 2012 election cycle, Altria -- its executives, other employees and company PAC combined -- gave Cantor’s PAC more than $57,000, with another $20,000 going to his campaign committee. The company doesn't ignore compliant Democrats. It was Sen. Mark Warner's (Va.) top donor in 2008 and has contributed nearly $39,000 to his campaign account this cycle, even though he's not up for re-election until 2014.