04.23.12

Selling White House Access: What’s Wrong With Campaign Finance Today

The White House guest list for the British prime minister’s recent dinner was lousy with Obama bundlers. Dennis M. Kelleher on the latest campaign-finance outrage.

No rational person could deny that our campaign-finance system is a disgrace and an ongoing stain on democracy.  Stories about buying and selling access to politicians from local state representatives to the White House are so routine that the corrosiveness of that is now often just mentioned in passing, on the way to some other story point.

Sunday’s New York Times has a classic example.  On the front page of the Sunday Style section is “White Gloves Not Needed,” about the White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard’s first year.  As proved by this paragraph (and many others), the article could have been titled “Buying a Seat at a White House State Dinner:  Be a Bundler for the President.”         

“In a city where White House guest lists are dissected like WikiLeaks cables, insiders have already seen the hand of Mr. Bernard in the presence at the dinner for Mr. Cameron of nearly four dozen ‘bundlers,’ or people who solicit campaign checks for Mr. Obama from their friends and associates. Mr. Bernard has at the same time become an important White House gatekeeper for prominent gay people, one of Mr. Obama’s most important but impatient constituencies, which remains frustrated that the president opposes gay marriage (Mr. Obama has said his views are ‘evolving’). In recent months, the president has turned more and more to gay men and women in search of new veins of large campaign donations, particularly after antagonizing Wall Street, a traditional but now less fruitful source of cash.”

So, of 362 total guests, about 14% were those uber-fundraising bundlers who were there not only for their past ability to shake the money tree to fill the president’s campaign treasure chest, but to make sure they do so again.  After all, nothing screams access and influence with the president and the rest of the White House than being invited to, having your name on the invite list and your photo at the most coveted of spots in Washington DC:  a seat at a White House dinner. That’s why they “are dissected like WikiLeaks cables.” 

The White House invite and photo—the highest and best endorsement and confirmation of access—are then used by the bundlers to raise literally tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars.  How?  By those bundlers going to others and saying, “I’ve made your views known to the president and his staff and they are paying attention.  And, I’m going back to talk to them about X, Y, or Z.  Send me back with a bundle and I’ll make sure they pay even more attention.”  It’s nothing less than a quid pro quote, but all legal.  But, legalized bribery doesn’t make it right.  (This isn’t a partisan activity.  Republicans and Democrats at all levels, including notably the White House, have been legally selling access and doling out rewards and treats for decades.)

However, for those who claim to participate in the corrupt and corrupting campaign-finance system begrudgingly (it’s the system we have to live in; we can’t unilaterally disarm; we have to play by the rules like everyone else; etc.)—like most Democrats—there’s no reason not to send other messages with the dinner invites and seating chart.  For example, where were the heads of the regulatory agencies that the president supports?  They are in the trenches every day trying to protect the taxpayer and Treasury from Wall Street, against unending attacks.  Why wasn’t Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chairman Gary Gensler there?  Or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s Marty Gruenberg?  International cooperation and coordination are critical to making financial reform work so having them at the dinner with the U.K. prime minister, for example, would have sent a very helpful domestic and international message. 

No doubt that would “antagonize Wall Street,” but the article stated—in passing—that they are already antagonized (although Wall Street's whiny, hurt feelings and crocodile tears are totally without any basis, but that’s a different story.  So, OK, everyone has to participate in a campaign-finance system that is little more than legalized bribery, but there’s no need to be so one-sided about it.  And, more important, no need for the media to mention this corruption in passing solely as part of a “style” article.

Lastly, if you care about reclaiming our democracy from those who get to legally purchase big parts of it under today's laws, check out United Republic and the work they are doing to try to change this.