Washington Watch: Pay to play is the name of the game

Buying access is sometimes the only way to have your case heard by a powerful senator.

douglas bloomfield224.88 (photo credit: )
douglas bloomfield224.88
(photo credit: )
The man who once had visions of residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may soon be residing in very different federal housing. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's ambition, greed and bleepin' vocabulary have made him the latest poster boy for political corruption. If even a fraction of what federal prosecutors allege, from selling a US Senate seat to shaking down a children's hospital, is true, he will be following in the footsteps of three recent predecessors who went to prison. His "pay to play" scheme had the bidding up to a million dollars for Barack Obama's Senate seat, according to prosecutors, and that was only the most outrageous part of it. Pay to play is an old part of the political game, but what Blagojevich allegedly did went so far over the line that it was out of sight. However, even the good guys, including the proponents of Jewish causes, can skirt close to the line. and the election cycle just ended cost upward of $5.8 billion, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics; final figures could go much higher. Nearly $2.5 billion was spent on the presidential election alone. Judging by the past eight years alone, there is no truth to that old cliché that we've got the best government money can buy. WHERE DOES it come from? More than one million individuals each contributed $200 or less, but that amounted to only half of 1 percent of the staggering total. The biggest donors - about 72% - represented business interests, with ideological, labor and others interests making up the rest. Where does all that money go? Sarah Palin's wardrobe is minuscule compared to what is spent for campaign consultants who conduct polls and prepare ads, to the media to play the ads and, of course, to raise all that money. The Obama and McCain campaigns spent $11 million on television spots broadcast during this summer's Olympics, according to Advertising Age. Pay to play means buying access. Sometimes it is the only way to have your case heard by a powerful senator, a fact pro-Israel forces have known for decades. Call it the "Ker-CHING" factor. Even white hat lobbyists representing charitable, religious, educational and other non-profit causes complain that lawmakers look at them and hear cash registers. OVER SEVERAL decades of lobbying on behalf of Jewish causes, I have found it common for some lawmakers to offer to help and then expect to be rewarded. It is not unusual for a congressional meeting to be followed by a call from a campaign committee. Incumbents have a clear fund-raising advantage. Lawmakers often solicit ideas for legislation from lobbyists so they can ride the results to the bank by going back to the group's members with "see what I've done for you" solicitations. The millions of small contributions are sincere expressions of support for a candidate or a cause, but the bigger ones often come with greater expectations. Major contributors have better chances of gaining an audience, getting phone calls returned and having their views taken more seriously. Sometimes all it takes to get a fat check is an invitation to the White House, a night in the Lincoln bedroom or a private briefing from a senior lawmaker, but sometimes the check comes with expectations for legislative favors. Campaign contributions buy defense industry lobbyists the access and clout to have laws written ordering the Pentagon to buy weapons systems it neither wants nor needs. If you want to see who is giving how much and to whom, check out the Federal Election Commission Web site at http://www.fec.gov/. Business interests aren't the only ones playing the game. Philanthropic, religious and other white hat organizations - religious institutions, ethnic groups and causes - stack their boards with wealthy people not only for what they contribute to the organization but also the political access they can buy. It's hardly an accident that AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, requires its top lay leaders to also be big-time campaign contributors. AIPAC may not dole out money itself, but it understands how money opens the doors for its citizen lobbyists. IF MONEY taints the system, sunshine is the best disinfectant, and full disclosure is essential. What we have today isn't glatt kosher, but it is legal. It could be so much better. Until there is full public financing of campaigns, politicians will continue soliciting contributions in staggering sums. Actually, we do have some public campaign financing. Unfortunately only 10% of taxpayers check off the $3 contribution to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund on their Form 1040. Campaign finance reform will not be high on the agenda of the new 111th Congress, however much politicians say they dislike fund-raising and consider it a corrupting influence. Jews are rightfully proud of the lobbying prowess of the organizations that represent them in Washington, but before we become too smug we have to understand there is a connection between that game and the more extreme version that may give Blagojevich a long-term lease in federal housing.