OPINION | An election, not an auction


November 2, 2010 is supposed to be an election. Unfortunately, it is beginning to look like an auction, with government for sale to the highest bidders. Powerful interest groups buy favors with big campaign contributions.

Special interest money is a dominant force in determining who wins elections and even who runs for office. And it doesn’t simply affect who gets into office. Once elections are over, special interest money influences who chairs legislative committees, who has the ear of powerful lawmakers, which bills receive a hearing, and ultimately what laws are passed. One congressional staffer, after observing the clout of interest groups, said, “If this were NASCAR, members of Congress would have the corporate logos of their sponsors sewn to their jackets.”

It’s an insidious process, in which wealthy interests buy elections and gain access and goodwill through campaign contributions. Most public officials are honorable people who would never “sell their vote.” But this system has a very real, albeit subconscious, impact even on well-meaning public officials.

We can change this and we must change it. In the Minnesota Senate, I have been a leader, authoring campaign finance reform legislation to drive special interest money out. Politicians understandably want the money, because campaigns are expensive, and without the special interest money, they feel they cannot win. That’s why reforms that put in public financing and limit spending are essential. With reform, politicians can win elections without taking the special interest money.

Let me give three examples of the problem: special interest money is destroying our environment, crushing health care reform, and buying big taxpayer subsidies.

Special interest money is destroying our environment. It is the reason we cannot pass basic environmental protection legislation in Minnesota, even though DFLers have a two-to-one margin in the Senate, and almost that in the House. The powerful interests fighting environmental legislation make generous contributions to both Republican and DFL legislative caucuses. Consequently, it is no surprise that legislative leaders appoint committee chairs and structure committees in a manner that won’t upset those donors too much.

Likewise for health care reform. Even with all the talk about “universal” health care in Washington, there is not a single proposal to provide universal care under consideration. Even before the legislative compromising began, the Obama proposal with the public option was estimated to cover only 94% of the public, leaving 6% with no care, and many more whose insurance doesn’t cover the care they need. That’s not exactly universal.

So why isn’t universal health care on the table? Senator Max Baucus, the chair of the committee that wrote the Senate legislation, refused to consider it. Is it any surprise that Baucus wants to require people to buy insurance, instead of providing universal health care, when he has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the health insurance lobby? Not surprisingly, the insurance lobby’s money goes to all the key lawmakers involved in the health reform debate.

Special interests are brazenly buying taxpayer subsidies. Four years ago, Zygi Wilf and his family, the owners of the Minnesota Vikings, gave $20,000 to both the Minnesota Republican Party and the DFL Party. They gave $10,000 to the DFL legislative caucuses and $12,000 to the Republican ones. In fact, they gave $5000 to both Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty and to his DFL challenger.

Why would they give massive amounts to both parties? Because they want as much as $700 million in public money to subsidize a new stadium. They haven’t won yet, but their proposal is getting a lot of attention at the capitol this year despite the worst budget crisis in memory.

Political insiders are so accustomed to lobbyists and interest groups bearing contributions that many have been desensitized to this influence peddling. Picture what would happen if the Wilf family made similar contributions to NFL officials before the next Vikings game.

A referee taking the money wouldn’t be saluted as a successful participant by either the NFL or its fans. He would be thrown out of his job. The conflict of interest is obvious.

But in politics, unlike football, the special interests who give the most aren’t thrown out in disgrace. They are actually admired for their clout. Candidates accepting their contributions are seen as major players because of the amounts they can raise.

This isn’t acceptable. Isn’t fair treatment from our government as important as fair officiating in our football games?

Do we value our democracy so little that we are willing to turn it over to special interests?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Replacing special interest money with publicly funded campaigns would cost a fraction of what taxpayers pay in subsidies, tax loopholes and other give-aways that special interests buy. And the benefits of a clean environment and a health care system that works for everyone? That’s priceless.