What's the Difference Between Corruption and Fundraising?
By David Sirota
December 15, 2008 - 11:44am ET
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With the scandal around Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich still raging, some may be asking a simple question: What's the difference between corruption and fundraising? It's a question I had when I saw the front page of the Denver Post's business section on Sunday:
Notice the lefthand column. The first story is headlined "Power Player Boosts Profile" and looks at an invitation-only group of Big Money executives called "Colorado Concern" whose goal is "to shape public policy." The story reports that "facing $250,000 in campaign debts after winning the race to become Colorado's 41st governor, Democrat Bill Ritter turned to [the] group" for cash. This, we are told, is standard non-corrupt fundraising, and we are expected to assume without question that Ritter traded nothing at all - no legislative commitments, no promises, nothing - for a quarter million dollars from a Republican group whose goal is "to shape public policy."*
The story right below that one is a column by Al Lewis about Chicago corruption through the lens of Blagojevich trying to auction off a Senate appointment. He notes that "what many Americans indignantly call corruption is just business in the Windy City, named for the constant rush of air from its politicians," adding that "shakedowns, kickbacks, threats and extortion — these are very harsh words for what many Illinois leaders, historically, have preferred to think of as just a highly deregulated market." But that's the thing - it's clearly not just Illinois. Run-of-the-mill, perfectly legal fundraising is a form of corruption, even if it can't get you sent to jail. And it happens everywhere, all the time.
Sure, what Blagojevich allegedly tried to do is outrageous - but the only thing he did that is truly different from others is get on the phone and make it so explicit. Indeed, the idea that his alleged attempt to sell a government favor (ie. a Senate appointment) is out of the ordinary is utterly preposterous. This is how our government works without public financing of elections.
And for every Blagojevich that becomes a poster-child for illegal activity, there are probably 50 examples of politicians doing things like this:
Rep. Gregory Meeks' decision to skip an auto industry bailout hearing to spend a weekend in Las Vegas won him few friends in the working-class Queens neighborhoods he represents. Folks in St. Albans were disgusted by the Daily News' report that Meeks ducked a Dec. 5 congressional hearing to check into the Bellagio hotel on the Strip for a fund-raising weekend...The News reported yesterday Meeks regularly uses funds from his campaigns and his political-action committee for trips to exotic locales - often in sunny climes in chilly months. Meeks spent $20,000 on a fund-raiser that included tickets to last February's Super Bowl in Phoenix, plus hotel rooms and "access to NFL parties."
The point here is that we can all tell ourselves that Blagojevich's behavior is an anomaly and focus in only on his individual behavior. But that would once again miss an opportunity to have a far more honest debate about a corrupt political system whose campaign finance process systemically encourages politicians to try to sell as many favors as possible to fatten their coffers for reelection. Until we fix that system, our government will be run by hundreds of slightly smarter Rod Blagojeviches - smarter in that they don't do their business on the phone.
* Note: I'm not saying Ritter did trade anything - all I'm saying is that it's kind of ridiculous that we're just expected to ASSUME nothing was traded, as if Big Money interests just shower politicians in cash in exchange for absolutely nothing.
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