Four years ago, maverick Democratic Senator Russ Feingold addressed the Shadow Convention, a gathering of activists in Los Angeles on the eve of the 2000 Democratic National Convention. After a perfunctory declaration of support for his party, the Wisconsin Democrat launched into a passionate condemnation of “what has happened to our conventions, to our government and to our democracy.”
“I’m sorry to say it, but the big story at the Democratic Convention is really influence buying and peddling,” said Feingold, whose attack on “our brave new corporate democracy” won him a standing ovation.
Has anything changed four years later and two years after legislation bearing Feingold’s name, along with that of his Republican colleague John McCain, ushered in a new era of federal campaign finance regulation? Yes and no. The McCain-Feingold law has made one big difference: No longer can corporations, unions and wealthy individuals purchase access and influence with federal politicians by making direct and unlimited contributions of “soft money” to their political party committees. Nor are elected officials allowed to solicit such checks anymore. The blatant shakedown is over.
But that hasn’t stopped the influence game from taking a new shape. One huge loophole that was left unclosed was the funding of the parties’ national political conventions, which get millions in public funds but are also allowed to accept support from local civic groups. This year, the nonprofit host committees for the Democratic and Republican conventions have been raking in corporate cash in unheard of amounts. Together, the two committees are expected to raise more than $100 million from private sources — more than 12 times as much as they raised in 1992, according to a new analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute. Here as in the presidential fund-raising race, the Republicans are in the lead, expecting to raise $63.6 million to the Democrats’ $39 million.
This explosion of cash has nothing to do with the actual costs of mounting a national convention, mind you. The amount that the Republicans are planning to spend on parties, receptions and special events in New York — $7.7 million — is actually more than the total amount ($6.2 million) the Democrats spent on their entire New York convention in 1992! Nor will the extra money spent on fancy stages, computer systems and telecommunications infrastructure deliver greater television coverage to the conventions, as the major networks have already signaled that they will be reducing their live news coverage to an hour a night.
No, the name of the game is, as one of the New York party planners put it, “Access . . . So they can show their best clients and best customers they know pretty important people.” Want to sway to a Caribbean beat along with political bigwigs at the New England Aquarium? Then you need to get into the bash honoring retiring Senator John B. Breaux (D-La.), sponsored by Bell South, the Edison Electric Institute and some dozen other companies. Breaux is fabled to have quipped years ago that his vote wasn’t for sale, but it was “for rent.” Maybe bowling in the dark is more your style? Bank of America’s “cosmic bowling” party in New York City will feature balls and lanes that glow in the dark, this one in honor of Representative David Dreier (R-Ca.), who has a seat on the influential House Rules Committee. Wanna golf? Democratic delegates are being hosted by ChevronTexaco and American Express at the “7th Annual Ronald H. Brown Memorial Golf Tournament.”
The top donors to the Democratic convention committee, giving anywhere from $100,000 to more than $1 million (the exact amounts have not been disclosed), include at least 19 giant financial firms (including Fidelity, Bank of America and State Street Corporation), seven big pharmaceuticals (Amgen, Merck, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Genzyme and Pfizer), four telecom corporations (IBM, AT&T, Nextel and Clear Channel), one defense contractor (Raytheon) and one tobacco company (Altria Group, formerly more infamously known as Philip Morris).
On the Republican side, “generous” supporters (they don’t give any numbers) include at least 13 financial firms (led by Citigroup, Bank of America and State Street), five pharmaceuticals (Amgen, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers, Pfizer, Schering Plough), seven telecom conglomerates (Cisco, Clear Channel, IBM, Microsoft, Disney, Univision and Verizon), a defense contractor (General Electric) and two tobacco companies (Altria and USTobacco). Twenty-one companies, in fact, are major givers to both parties’ convention committees.
While some are local employers who might have civic reasons for boosting their hometown, all have been big givers of campaign cash in Washington, with an intense interest in shaping legislation and regulation their way. The pharmaceuticals, for example, just saw their $108 million investment in Washington politicians (total given since 1989) produce an industry-friendly prescription drug program for the elderly that will shunt a whopping $139 billion in fresh profits into their pockets. The finance giants all support tax cuts, and several have been longtime proponents of privatizing Social Security (the thought of billions in stock commissions makes them quiver). By hosting all these lavish parties, they get to cajole lawmakers up close and nurture social relationships that will pay off with phone calls returned and bills favorably written down the line.
Who is left out of this? You, the ordinary voter, who is stuck watching the convention on your TV screen, while munching microwave popcorn and wondering why those politicians can’t seem to pass legislation for affordable prescription drugs, or a host of other vital needs. Groups like ACORN, or Justice for Janitors, barely have enough money to mount their own organizing campaigns, let alone throw lavish parties for politicians, delegates and fat cats. It will be interesting to see if Senator Feingold, or anyone else at the conventions, sees fit to speak out about this continued abuse of our democracy.
Micah L. Sifry and Nancy Watzman are the authors of Is That a Politician in Your Pocket? Washington on $2 Million a Day, published this month by John Wiley & Sons. They are, respectively, senior analyst and research/investigative projects director at Public Campaign.