Trickle-Down Bribery, or, The Butch Cassidy Congress

Staffers all but run Congress, but finally they need to keep the boss happy. And a happy official is one whose donors are happy, writes Lindsay Mark Lewis.

“Well, if there ain’t going to be any rules, let’s get the fight started.”—Butch Cassidy

The House of Representatives in the 112th Congress has earned its single digit approval rating with aplomb. Gridlock, brinksmanship, mistrust, and meaningless partisan votes make today’s Congress the most dysfunctional I’ve seen in twenty years working on and around Capitol Hill.

Today, it pays to be an ardent partisan. Both parties now have super PACs—outside political organizations established by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision—that accept millions in unlimited donations to support candidates. Democrats have House Majority PAC and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has established the Young Guns Action Fund for Republicans. Members may not be able to coordinate their activities with a super PAC, but they sure can raise money for them.

Though a July poll found two-thirds of Americans uncomfortable with unrestricted money in politics, the Supreme Court ruled that this influx of cash will not jeopardize our democratic process. Donors “might have influence or access to elected officials,” reads the Citizen’s United decision, but it “does not mean that those officials are corrupt.”

That interpretation may be technically correct, but it’s clear a majority of Supreme Court Justices have no idea how politics really works. I do. I’ve seen first hand how corruption infiltrates Congress. While Members’ votes are not necessarily for sale, America’s legislative process most certainly is. And the super PAC era is making the situation exponentially worse.

Congressional corruption is facilitated by Hill staff. Members of Congress are in the customer service business. Members must track down lost Social Security checks, listen to complaints in the district, and take feedback on proposed legislation.

But no elected official can sustain high level of customer service without a robust staff, an average of eighteen per House office.

It’s nearly impossible to over-estimate the power that Congressional staffers have accumulated. Members of Congress lean on staff for even the minutest details of their professional lives. Staff coordinate every second of elected officials’ schedule, provide political and policy advice, and maintain relationships between Members and constituents and government agencies. Most importantly, staff members write legislation.

These tasks, however, are ultimately a function of a staffers’ most important responsibility: Keeping the boss happy. And a happy official is one whose donors are happy. Consequently, Congressional staff know all the top donors by name, face, and political need.

Like in any industry, a high-quality staff member anticipates what both the customer (or donor) needs, and does it before the boss asks. Staff members service the donor by, for example, anticipating what language a donor would want in a bill or calling in favors at regulatory agencies on a donor’s behalf. The Member of Congress simply never needs to know what’s happening.

Super PACs are raising the stakes. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the parties were at rough fundraising parity. With donations capped, staffers could afford to ignore a donor from time to time.

No more. With the handful big-money super PAC donors well-known in the press, staff in both parties will begin to automatically pay ever more attention to the check writers. If a staffer has to choose between helping grandma locate her Social Security check and speaking with a $1 million super PAC donor, guess who gets sent to the back of the line.

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Republican and Democratic staffers treat donors differently. To a Republican, campaign contributions have always represented a form of free enterprise. Staffers embrace a business mentality, and usually provide their patrons with high-quality customer service. As such, Republicans have been more inclined to push legal boundaries to please donors. It’s no coincidence that disgraced, convicted super lobbyist Jack Abramoff took down just one Republican Member of Congress, Bob Nye (OH), but seventeen Republican staffers with him.

Ironically, many donors to Republican super PACs are those who need politicians’ help to succeed in the free market. The Koch brothers have spent hundreds of millions to convince conservatives that climate change, brought on, in part, by Koch-owned dirty coal plants, is a myth. Or Sheldon Adelson, a firm pro-Israel Democrat twenty years ago when I raised money from him, now gives exclusively to Republicans who help cheaply repatriate his casino profits from Macau. How many more Republican staffers will risk jail time in pursuit of their donors’ bottom lines?

Democratic staffers will play the game to an extent, but are inherently uncomfortable that donors might seek a quid pro quo. It’s notable that not one Democratic staffer has been accused or convicted of selling favors in Congress in the past eight years.

Customer service will be relatively easier for Democrats. High-profile Democratic super PAC givers include the likes of Morgan Freeman and Bill Maher, who are motivated by one of two things: a fierce belief progressive ideals or the desire to even out money to Republican groups. In return for their gifts, Freeman and Maher might be rewarded by nothing more than spending the night in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House. It’s not like Morgan Freeman has a new coal plant in Los Angeles that he needs the Department of Energy to approve.

Then there’s another group of donors, responsible corporate actors like Apple, IBM, Amazon, Intuit, and Starbucks, among others, who’ve chosen to give super PACs a pass. While some of these companies may give modest amounts directly to candidates, none require special access to officials that millions of dollars in super PAC money will garner. There’s a cost to this approach: Responsible businesses are getting pushed down Congressional staffers’ priority list, along with constituents.

Those who care about Congress as an institution, American democracy, and simple principles of fairness have begun to battle for a Constitutional Amendment that limits campaign money. Even President Obama has mentioned the idea on the campaign trail. It’s a worthy but impractical effort that would take years to achieve under the best of circumstances. Mega-donations have been finding ways around campaign finance restrictions for decades, and would likely do so again.

The best way to limit big money in politics is for Republicans and Democrats to simply call a truce. When Congress returns to vote in the lame duck session this year, they should take a “timeout” from fundraising, both for their campaigns and super PACs, for one year.

A “timeout truce” in the campaign cash arms race neither limits free speech nor requires new legislation. Members could simply set an example by acknowledging the outsized role money now plays in politics and refusing to participate in all fundraising activities to focus on the needs of the country and of their constituents.

Republicans, clearly leading the super PAC arms race, may be reluctant to embrace a “time out truce” at first. But any excuse not to raise money, combined with a patriotic motive, may prove an attractive option for even Republican Members sick of spending all their time at events and on the phone.

Further, a truce would allow Members to temporarily rebalance their priorities towards constituent services and the good corporate actors that have received short shrift of late. And if Congressional staff know that a mega donor can’t help their bosses for a full year, perhaps they won’t jump to fulfill donors’ every request.