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Pay to Play Remains the Name of the Game in Washington

December 25, 2008 By:
Douglas M. Bloomfield
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The man who once had visions of residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. may soon be residing in very different federal housing.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's ambition, greed and bleepin' vocabulary have made him the latest poster boy for political corruption. If even a fraction of what federal prosecutors allege -- from selling a U.S. Senate seat to shaking down a children's hospital -- is true, he will be following in the footsteps of three recent predecessors who went to prison.

His "pay-to-play" scheme had the bidding up to $1 million for Barack Obama's Senate seat, according to prosecutors -- and that was only the most outrageous part of it.

Pay to play is an old art of the political game, but what Blagojevich allegedly did went so far over the line it was out of sight. However, even the good guys, including the proponents of Jewish causes, can skirt close to the line.

Money is the mother's milk of politics, and the election cycle that just ended cost upward of $5.8 billion, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics; final figures could go much higher. Nearly $2.5 billion was spent on the presidential election alone.

Judging by the past eight years alone, there is no truth to that old cliché that we've got the best government money can buy.

Where does it come from? More than 1 million individuals each contributed $200 or less, but that amounted to only half of 1 percent of the staggering total.

The biggest donors -- about 72 percent -- represented business, with ideological, labor and others interests making up the rest.

Where does all that money go?

Sarah Palin's wardrobe is miniscule compared to what is spent for campaign consultants who conduct polls and prepare ads to raise all that money. The Obama and McCain campaigns spent $11 million on television spots broadcast during this summer's Olympics, according to Advertising Age.

Pay to play means buying access. Sometimes, it's the only way to have your case heard by a powerful senator -- a fact pro-Israel forces have known for decades.

Call it the "Ker-CHING" factor. Even white-hat lobbyists representing charitable, religious and educational causes complain that lawmakers look at them and hear cash registers.

Over several decades of lobbying on behalf of Jewish causes, I have found it common for some lawmakers to offer to help -- and then expect to be rewarded. It is not unusual for a congressional meeting to be followed by a call from a campaign committee.

Incumbents have a fundraising advantage. Lawmakers often solicit ideas for legislation from lobbyists so that they can ride the results to the bank by going back to the group's members with "see- what-I've-done-for-you" solicitations.

The millions of small contributions are sincere expressions of support for a candidate or a cause, but the bigger ones often come with greater expectations. Major contributors have better chances of gaining an audience, getting phone calls returned and having their views taken more seriously.

Sometimes, all it takes to get a fat check is an invitation to the White House, a night in the Lincoln bedroom or a private briefing from a senior lawmaker.

But other times, the check comes with expectations for legislative favors.

Campaign contributions buy defense-industry lobbyists the access and clout to have laws written ordering the Pentagon to buy weapons systems it neither wants nor needs. (If you want to see who is giving how much and to whom, check out the Federal Election Commission Web site at: www.fec.gov/.)

Business interests aren't the only ones playing the game.

Philanthropic, religious and other white-hat organizations -- religious institutions, ethnic groups and causes -- stack their boards with wealthy people not only for what they contribute to the organization, but also for the political access they can buy.

If money taints the system, then sunshine is the best disinfectant, and full disclosure is essential. What we have today isn't glatt kosher, but it's legal.

It could be so much better.

Campaign finance reform will not be high on the agenda of the new 111th Congress, despite the fact that many politicians say they dislike fundraising and consider it a corrupting influence.

Jews are rightfully proud of the lobbying prowess of the organizations that represent them in Washington, but before we become too smug, we have to understand that there is a connection between that game, and the more extreme version that may give Blagojevich a long-term lease in federal housing.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.


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