With crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff sentenced to six years in prison for fraud, and the initial wave of politician grandstanding having subsided, it's a good time to step back and look more deeply at the role of money in politics. Evidence suggests that the Jack Abramoffs are a distraction from the real problem.
Certainly the Abramoff scandal has focused badly needed attention on the quid pro quo between politicians and donors--the granting of legislative favors in return for big donations. But a key question has not been asked: To what degree do the interests of donors affect overall policy, especially in major policy areas?
To understand the role that private money plays in our elections, it's important to understand what I call the "pyramid of money." Party leaders such as Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Democrat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, as well as most incumbents from both parties, don't need to spend a dime on their reelections, since they represent districts that are one-party strongholds.
This is not so much due to redistricting abuses as much as the noncompetitive nature of winner-take-all elections resulting from red and blue partisan residential patterns. You cannot draw a competitive district out of Pelosi's overwhelmingly liberal San Francisco district no matter how you carve it. It turns out that most legislative districts are like that, naturally tilted toward one party or the other.
Nevertheless, party leaders and incumbents raise huge amounts of money for their own reelections. Why? Because they funnel the money into party-building activities, especially to finance colleagues in the handful of hotly contested races.
This in turn buys them influence among their peers and powerful committee-leadership positions. Think of it as a pyramid structure with each party's big-money kings and queens sitting at the top, directing the flow of money to the predictably tight races, hoping to win a majority of seats for their team.
The rest of the safe-seat incumbents, along with the lobbyists, lawyers, allied PACs and donors, fill out the lower levels of the pyramid, funneling money into the pyramid's labyrinth where it is directed by party leaders skilled in the art of deception. It's a well-oiled operation, with lots of give and take between the different levels of the team.
Indeed, comments by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay reveal the extent to which the lobbyists and special interests today play their subordinate role in the pyramid, following the lead of political leaders instead of vice versa. Said DeLay, "No one came to me and said, 'Please repeal the Clean Air Act.' We say to the lobbyists, 'Help us.' We know what we want to do, and we find the people to help us do that."
The case of lobbyist Jack Abramoff precisely illustrates the point. Abramoff, who pled guilty to influence peddling and bribery, was not involved in activities that affected major policy areas. Instead, they involved receiving favors from legislators--including DeLay--for himself and his business clients in exchange for large donations and perks for legislators. DeLay got what he wanted: large donations to grease his political machine. And Abramoff got what he wanted: personal favors for his businesses and clients. They scratched each other's backs, each playing their respective roles in the pyramid of money.
So the pyramid is the problem, much more than the quid pro quo. The quid pro quo is repugnant, but is only a symptom of the bigger picture. Jack Abramoff and his ilk are hardly the reason Tom DeLay and the GOP pursue certain policies. Major policy directions are driven by the dynamics of the pyramid, with its one-party fiefdoms and kings and queens sitting atop the pile, and not by the Jack Abramoffs.
Certainly there are notorious examples of riders attached to bills because some quid pro quo occurred between a donor and a powerful political leader. But such riders usually are a small percentage of overall policy and legislation, and most of the time such a blatant quid pro quo affects the donor's personal business situation, not major policy areas, which is an important distinction.
What this means is that even with strong campaign-finance reform, breaking up the pyramid will be very difficult to do as long as we are using a winner-take-all system where most legislative seats are lopsided one-party districts, and where invincible incumbents with no worries about reelection can funnel their campaign funds to party leaders sitting atop the pyramid's labyrinth.
If we don't understand the dynamics of how our political system works, we will miss the mark when we try to reform it.
Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation, and author of the recently published '10 Steps to Repair American Democracy' (www.10steps.net). The Byrne Report will return next week.