Center for American Progress

When Money Talks, Who Listens (Besides Politicians)?

When Money Talks, Who Listens (Besides Politicians)?

Perhaps the most important role money can play in politics is to maintain the status quo, and not many in the media know how to cover “nothing,” writes Eric Alterman.

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce building is shown in Washington, D.C. The chamber functions as a kind of fence for many corporations looking to intervene in the political process without leaving any footprints. (Flickr/<a href= NCinDC)" data-srcset=" 610w, 610w, 610w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce building is shown in Washington, D.C. The chamber functions as a kind of fence for many corporations looking to intervene in the political process without leaving any footprints. (Flickr/ NCinDC)

Everybody knows money talks in politics, but people—and particularly the press—rarely pay attention to exactly how. It can define potential alternatives, invent arguments, inundate with propaganda, and threaten with merely hypothetical opposition.

Politicians do not need to "switch" their votes to meet its demands. They can bury bills, rewrite the language of bills that are presented, convince certain congressmen to schedule a golf tournament back home on a day of a key committee vote, confuse debate, and bankroll primary opposition.

The manner and means through which money can operate is almost as infinite as its uses in any bordello, casino, or Wall Street brokerage. Just about the only thing money can’t buy in politics is love. But that’s OK because, as Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) or ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer can tell you, politics provides plenty of substitutes.

Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author of the book, Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why, explains that the real outcome of most lobbying—in fact, its greatest success—is the achievement of nothing, the maintenance of the status quo: “Sixty percent of the time, nothing happens… What we see is gridlock and successful stalemating of proposals, with occasional breakthroughs.” And that’s just the way the corporate lobbies want it.

Health insurers, including United Health Group Inc. and Cigna, last year gave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce $86.2 million that was used to oppose the health care overhaul law, according to a November 17, 2010 report by Bloomberg News. The report notes that this amount “exceeded the insurer group’s entire budget from a year earlier and accounted for 40 percent of the Chamber’s $214.6 million in 2009 spending.”

It might have been nice to know this during the fight over the bill—when so many members of the mainstream media were pretending that all the opposition to it was based on genuine voter outrage, but it only became public when annual tax records required under U.S. law were finally made public.

The insurers’ funneling of money through the chamber is an example of some of the new business opportunities that recent Supreme Court rulings have opened up for all wealthy and corporate funders who wish to remain anonymous. None have been so successful at exploiting them as the chamber, which functions as a kind of fence for many corporations looking to intervene in the political process without leaving any footprints. Among the chamber donations revealed by a lengthy New York Times investigation of individual corporations’ tax filings:

  • $2 million from Prudential Financial to fight financial regulation
  • $1.7 million from Dow Chemical to weaken tighter security requirements on chemical facilities
  • $8 million Goldman Sachs, Chevron Texaco, and Aegon, a multinational insurance company based in the Netherlands, to a chamber foundation critical of growing federal regulation and spending

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, or CRP, calculated that approximately $3.47 billion was spent lobbying the federal government in 2009, up from $3.3 billion the previous year. By the final quarter of the year, lobbies were handing out $20 million a day.

The most generous spreaders of wealth were in the pharmaceutical and health products industries, whose $266.8 million in 2009 set a record for "the greatest amount ever spent on lobbying efforts by a single industry for one year" according to CRP. At one point, PhRMA, who represents pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, employed 48 lobbying firms in addition to in-house lobbyists, with a total of 165 people overall, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s Paul Blumenthal. They did not do so because they were worried about unemployment figures among high-priced lawyers and ex-lawmakers.

As of late May, members of the financial committees in both houses had already enjoyed 845 separate fundraising events, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit Washington tracking group. According to an analysis by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington for The New York Times, 14 freshmen who serve on the House Financial Services Committee raised 56 percent more in campaign contributions than other freshmen. Party leaders know this, and they place potentially vulnerable members on this committee to aid them with their fundraising.

Naturally they are expected to do the industry’s bidding there. And it should surprise no one to learn that Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members enjoyed an average of $52,000 from the oil and gas industry in the 2008-2010 election cycle, compared with $24,000 for others in the Senate, according to CRP data.

In the meantime, in order to secure the support of the lobbies deemed sufficiently powerful to kill it, the American Power Act’s sponsors, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and on-again-off-again Lindsay Graham (R-SC), were willing to promise the following during the negotiation period according to a detailed report by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker:

  • Preemption from carbon regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency as demanded by the Clean Air Act, to the US Chamber of Commerce
  • A series of tax incentives for natural gas usage and the creation and installation of natural-gas fuelling stations to secure the support of the right-wing billionaire, T. Boone Pickens
  • A special gift to the oil industry regarding the “linked fee” proposal “ in exchange for the American Petroleum Institute "being quiet” as well as the opening up “vast portions of the Gulf and the East Coast” to drilling
  • Eight billion additional dollars for the Highway Trust Fund to ensure the support of the South Carolina trucking industry
  • Nuclear loan guarantees, an assurance that the cost of carbon would never rise above a certain level, and billions of dollars’ worth of free allowances through 2030 (as well as pre-emption of the Clean Air Act) for electric utilities represented by the Edison Electric Institute.

As Al Gore observed to Lizza, “The forces wedded to the old patterns still have enough influence that they were able to use the fear of the economic downturn as a way of slowing the progress toward this big transition that we have to make.”

In other words, “nothing” happened. And that’s just what the corporations were paying for.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His newest book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is available for preorder.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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