Do American Politicians Just Care About Donors and Reelection?
Claiming that lawmakers in Washington are doing nothing is a fair argument. The current session of Congress is the most inactive — or nearly the most inactive — in American history. Yet, a corollary must be added to that assessment; with congressional midterm elections approaching, senators and representatives alike are working to show voters they are committed to fixing the legislative crisis in Washington. The problem is that lawmakers are not focusing on the issues most concerning voters, but delving deeper in political theater. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who is both facing a tough reelection bid against Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and hopes to become Senate majority leader after November’s elections — has put emphasis on how he and his party will undermine Democratic goals if the Republicans gain the Senate majority. Even though that promise will not ease congressional gridlock, it will appeal to a great majority of the voters most likely to vote in November’s midterms. Typically, midterm voters tend to be older, whiter, and more conservative Americans; and those are the voters who largely make up the GOP electorate.
Congressional lawmakers campaigning for reelection have little by the way of substantive legislation to highlight as past achievements. In fact, the 113th Congress has been described as more inactive than the infamous “do-nothing Congress” of the late 1940s. Since the 106th Congress, which spanned 1999 and 2000, there’s been a steady downward trend in the volume of total and substantive legislation, according to Pew Research. This decline coincided with increasing polarization in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Pew found that even though most moderate American voters believe the logical compromise is “splitting things down the middle.” A small minority, which constitute a large share of the active and engaged electorate, say their party should “get more of what it wants in political negotiations,” meaning polarization has profoundly damaged the legislative process. The current Congress has passed just 55 “substantive measures” in 2013, which substantially less than any Congress in two decades.
Polarization has a number of features: Congress is less able to pass substantive legislation; a greater number of voters hold consistently liberal or consistently conservative views; and a growing number of those ideologically-oriented Americans have very negative views of the opposite party. The effect of these political trends is that lawmakers are more concerned with the trappings of the legislative battles than their outcomes, or in other words, lawmakers are rewarded for making partisan stands rather than pursuing bipartisan solutions to the many problems facing the United States.
Clamor over partisan politics also hides the fact that “the preferences of the average American [voter] appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” as a 2014 political science study revealed. But comments made several months ago by McConnell at a secret strategy conference of conservative wealthy donors hosted by the Koch brothers, titled “American Courage: Our Commitment to a Free Society,” show the extent to which the lawmaker has corporate interests at the forefront of his agenda. Both he and corporate interests want to preventing Democrats, who control the Senate and the presidency, from “using the power of the government” to silence their critics.
“So all Citizens United did was to level the playing field for corporate speech,” McConnell explained to the assembled millionaire and billionaire GOP donors, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision that held the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from restricting independent political contributions from corporations. “We now have, I think, the most free and open system we’ve had in modern times. The Supreme Court allowed all of you to participate in the process in a variety of different ways. You can give to the candidate of your choice. You can give to Americans for Prosperity, or something else, a variety of different ways to push back against the party of government.”
In McConnell’s opinion, the Democrats should be considered the party of government because its lawmakers favor solutions to national issues that depend on increased regulation or government oversight. Republicans, by comparison, favor solutions sourced in the private sector. “We are the party of the private sector. They have a government solution for every single thing,” he added.
It is clear that money is an essential part of the American electoral process. Donors have written checks at a furious pace this summer. Further, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission — which removed the Watergate-era limit to how much individuals could donate to federal candidates and party committees during each two-year election cycle — contributions to Republicans have soared. According to campaign finance data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, 310 wealthy Americans – from Silicon Valley investors to New York hedge fund managers to Texas oil magnates to Vegas casino titans — gave a combined $11.6 million more this summer than would have been allowed before the pre-McCutcheon ruling. That massive influx of donations means “you have to realize, when you start contributing to all these guys, they give you access to meet them and talk about your issues,” Andrew Sabin, the owner of a precious metals refining business, told The Washington Post.
Money is so important to campaigning that McConnell called George W. Bush’s signing of the the McCain-Feingold Act, a reform that put some limits on financing, the “worst day of [his] political life,” which spanned the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial crisis.
Republicans are raising epic amounts this campaign season in hopes of winning the Senate majority come November’s congressional midterm elections, and donations to the GOP committee and candidates have outpaced Democrats by two to one. The Senate majority is the Republican party’s holy grail. After the majority was lost in 2006, the party was handed what it saw as evidence of its impotence or signs that Democrats would never let Republican lawmakers be involved in the legislative process; specifically, the Affordable Care Act was passed without a single Republican vote.
Pollsters have predicted Republicans will win six seats and take control of the Senate after November’s midterms. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and FiveThirtyEight all place the pace the party’s chances in a range between 52 percent and 82 percent.
Controlling more than 50 seats in the Senate give Republican lawmakers the ability decide what does and does not come to the floor for consideration “A GOP Senate takeover would be terrible for Obama’s presidency,” Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, told The Daily Beast in April. “It would spell the end of any progress on any legislative action and with GOP control of both houses of Congress, Republicans would set up debates to help their presidential candidates in 2016. And, of course, investigations of the administration would double.” Democrat senators agree. “It would let loose six years of right-wing frustration,” New York’s Chuck Schumer told the publication. “The potential for gridlock is enormous.”
But the Senate majority is also the perfect calculus for the party to advance its agenda, an agenda supported by the wealthy donors of GOP lawmakers. “In the House and Senate, we own the budget. So what does that mean? That means that we can pass the spending bill,” said McConnell at the Koch Brothers donor summit, according to an audio recording obtained by The Nation. “And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on healthcare, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board … All across the Federal government, we’re going to go after it.”
McConnell’s comments match the agenda pundits expect a GOP-led Senate to set. Top goals include approving the Keystone XL pipeline, passing rules for overseas trade agreements, accelerating reviews of natural gas exports, and repealing Obamacare’s medical device tax. The Koch brothers — whose conglomerate with interests in oil, natural gas, and coal — are also pursuing an energy initiate that would fight Obama’s regulations on carbon dioxide emissions.
Republicans — like Democrats — promise their policy initiatives will bring about more jobs and a reinvigorated economy. Republicans and Democrats alike have have their flaws. Currently, the United States economy remains in recovery, but since the recession ended nearly five years ago, GDP very rarely achieved what economists call ideal growth. Both sides claim that the other party has obstructed their efforts to revive growth, while some economists argue that insufficient understanding of what caused the dual problems of ongoing weak economic growth and high unemployment has caused a lack unanimity among policy makers on how best to respond. Other economists argue that the GOP has sought to block measures that a number of economists agreed would help to boost the economy and bring down unemployment.
But, overall, it remains unclear whether the Republicans could have handled the recovery from more than one year of recession any better than the Obama administration. Furthermore, while Democrats can be accused of expanding government to an overly burdensome level and injecting too much money into entitlement programs, Republicans can be accused of giving too much attention to corporate interests and wealthy donors.
Republicans have been termed by some in the media as the party of the rich, an image born in the post-Reagan years, primarily through the Bush era tax cuts. “The GOP’s frenzied handouts to the rich during the Bush era coincided with the weakest economic expansion since World War II — and the only one in modern American history in which the wages of working families actually fell and poverty increase history of republican and money,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson back in 2011. “The Republican Party has totally abdicated its job in our democracy, which is to act as the guardian of fiscal discipline and responsibility,” David Stockman, who served as budget director under Reagan, told Dickinson. “They’re on an anti-tax jihad — one that benefits the prosperous classes.” Now, Republicans argue money donated to campaigns equals free speech. By comparison, Democrats believe that allowing money to be equated to free speech means the rich have louder voices than the poor, corrupting the political process.
This is not to say that Republican positions on abortion, immigration, and fiscal conservatism are not positions that appeal to voters. According to Pew Research, the issues most important to voters ahead of the upcoming November elections are the labor market, healthcare, budget deficit, education, security and anti-terror policy, and immigration. But the fact that voters’ key concerns align with Republican aims and the desires of their wealthy donors does not mean that GOP lawmakers are focused most on the worries on their constituents. The study conducted by Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page proved that much.
Their research found the average citizens has nearly zero influence on policy. Members of the business and economic elite have power — that the average citizen does not — to influence party philosophy because they are the party; not only do the wealthy and large corporations have the ability to guide policymaking by funding lobbyists and readily donating to campaigns, but members of the business and economic elite are included more regularly in the political process, especially in adversarial roles. Polarization often leaves those moderate Americans feeling excluded from the political process, pushing hem to believe their vote does not matter, which gives business elites and the rich more influence in government. Further, voters “don’t grasp how deep inequality is,” as Eduardo Porter wrote recently in The New York Times, meaning they do not use their modest electoral weight to level the economic playing field.
The Koch brothers’ donor summit reaffirms the theory that the American political system is increasingly under the sway of wealthy donors.
Many political analysts believe that congressional gridlock will only increase if the Republicans gain the Senate majority. “The focus for dysfunction would shift from the Senate blocking bad Republican ideas to the President’s veto blocking bad ideas, but bad ideas would nonetheless be blocked,” a Democratic aide told Vox. Republican lawmakers will definitely not negotiate with their colleagues across the aisle on issues important to lower income American voters of both parties.
“That’s all we do in the Senate is vote on things like raising the minimum wage [inaudible] — cost the country 500,000 new jobs; extending unemployment — that’s a great message for retirees; uh, the student loan package the other day, that’s just going to make things worse,” said McConnell at the summit, referring to a plan proposed by populist Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. “These people believe in all the wrong things.” In April, Senate Republicans, under McConnell’s leadership, successfully filibustered a bill that would have increased federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and earlier in the year, he and his party also filibustered a three-month extension of unemployment insurance for some 1.7 million Americans who had been without jobs for more than 26 weeks.
McConnells’ race against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is expected to be one of the closest races that will determine which party controls the Senate come 2015. Already, $100 million has been spent campaigning, making the Kentucky election one of the most expensive Senate race in history. As of July 21, Super PACs and individuals linked Koch Industries had donated at least $41,800 to McConnell’s campaign.
The involvement of the Koch brothers in McConnell’s campaign has given ammunition to his Democratic challenger. “Mitch McConnell is there for millionaires and billionaires. He is not there for people who are working hard, playing by the rules, and trying to build a future for themselves,” said Warren, while campaigning for Grimes in Kentucky. Meanwhile, at a meeting with constituents, McConnell has said that “not everybody needs to go to Yale” and that lower income students should look at for-profit colleges. McConnell was instrumental in blocking Warren’s initiative to refinance student loan debt, which would have been funded by a new minimum tax on the wealthiest Americans.
Still, McConnell has expanded his lead over Grimes in a recent poll. But while a Saturday Bluegrass poll gave the incumbent Senator a 4-point lead, it is important to remember the poll has a 4.2-point margin of error. According to the data, McConnell is favored in rural parts of the state, and he as a 12-point lead among voters earning more than $80,000. “It’s becoming more clear the closer we get to the election that voters want a proven leader like Senator McConnell who delivers for Kentucky rather than an inexperienced liberal who is just another vote for the Obama agenda,” McConnell spokesperson Allison Moore told the The Courier-Journal in a statement.
But Democrats are also taking advantage of the secretive, so-called “dark money” political behemoths known as Super PACs, even while bemoaning their existence. For example, the nonprofit Patriot Majority USA has spent more than $7 million on political advertisements, according to the FEC — making it the largest Democrat-aligned, dark money operation in the United States and the counterpoint to the Koch brother’s political machine, Americans for Prosperity. Patriot Majority USA is backed by unions and led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who has called the Koch brothers “un-American” and claimed hidden dark money is “corrupting our elections.” Nonprofit political action committees — like Americans for Prosperity and Patriot Majority USA — have been called “dark money” groups because they are not legally required to disclose their donors. To be clear, by law, election-related spending cannot be the “primary purpose” of these “social welfare nonprofits,” but thanks to Citizens United, they are allowed to spend vast amounts on advocating for or against candidates running for federal office.
The fact that both Democrats and Republicans equally benefit from such organizations should come as no surprise. After all, the study conducted by Gilens and Page made no distinction between Republicans and Democrats.
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