Tom Ferguson: Congress is a “Coin Operated Stalemate Machine”

Readers may recall that we discussed a Financial Times op ed by University of Massachusetts professor of political sciences and favorite Naked Capitalism curmudgeon Tom Ferguson which described a particularly sordid aspect of American politics: an explicit pay to play system in Congress. Congresscritters who want to sit on influential committees, and even more important, exercise leadership roles, are required to kick in specified amounts of money into their party’s coffers. That in turn increases the influence of party leadership, since funds provided by the party machinery itself are significant in election campaigning. And make no doubt about it, they are used as a potent means of rewarding good soldiers and punishing rabble-rousers

A new article by Ferguson in the Washington Spectator sheds more light on this corrupt and defective system. Partisanship and deadlocks are a direct result of the increased power of a centralized funding apparatus. It’s easy to raise money for grandstanding on issues that appeal to well-heeled special interests, so dysfunctional behavior is reinforced.

Let’s first look at how crassly explicit the pricing is. Ferguson cites the work of Marian Currander on how it works for the Democrats in the House of Representatives:

Under the new rules for the 2008 election cycle, the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] asked rank-and-file members to contribute $125,000 in dues and to raise an additional $75,000 for the party. Subcommittee chairpersons must contribute $150,000 in dues and raise an additional $100,000. Members who sit on the most powerful committees … must contribute $200,000 and raise an additional $250,000. Subcommittee chairs on power committees and committee chairs of non-power committees must contribute $250,000 and raise $250,000. The five chairs of the power committees must contribute $500,000 and raise an additional $1 million. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn, and Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel must contribute $800,000 and raise $2.5 million. The four Democrats who serve as part of the extended leadership must contribute $450,000 and raise $500,000, and the nine Chief Deputy Whips must contribute $300,000 and raise $500,000. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must contribute a staggering $800,000 and raise an additional $25 million.

Ferguson teases out the implications:

Uniquely among legislatures in the developed world, our Congressional parties now post prices for key slots on committees. You want it — you buy it, runs the challenge. They even sell on the installment plan: You want to chair an important committee? That’ll be $200,000 down and the same amount later, through fundraising…..

The whole adds up to something far more sinister than the parts. Big interest groups (think finance or oil or utilities or health care) can control the membership of the committees that write the legislation that regulates them. Outside investors and interest groups also become decisive in resolving leadership struggles within the parties in Congress. You want your man or woman in the leadership? Just send money. Lots of it….

The Congressional party leadership controls the swelling coffers of the national campaign committees, and the huge fixed investments in polling, research, and media capabilities that these committees maintain — resources the leaders use to bribe, cajole, or threaten candidates to toe the party line… Candidates rely on the national campaign committees not only for money, but for message, consultants, and polling they need to be competitive but can rarely afford on their own..

This concentration of power also allows party leaders to shift tactics to serve their own ends….They push hot-button legislative issues that have no chance of passage, just to win plaudits and money from donor blocs and special-interest supporters. When they are in the minority, they obstruct legislation, playing to the gallery and hoping to make an impression in the media…

The system …ensures that national party campaigns rest heavily on slogan-filled, fabulously expensive lowest-common-denominator appeals to collections of affluent special interests. The Congress of our New Gilded Age is far from the best Congress money can buy; it may well be the worst. It is a coin-operated stalemate machine that is now so dysfunctional that it threatens the good name of representative democracy itself.

If that isn’t sobering enough, a discussion after the Ferguson article describes the mind-numbing amount of money raised by the members of the deficit-cutting super committee. In addition, immediately after being named to the committee, several members launched fundraising efforts that were unabashed bribe-seeking. But since the elites in this country keep themselves considerable removed from ordinary people, and what used to be considered corruption in their cohort is now business as usual, nary an ugly word is said about these destructive practices.

Ferguson gave a preview of his article last week on Dylan Ratigan:

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  1. LucyLulu

    How depressing. Secession isn’t looking better all the time. Maybe nobody would notice if a group left with Wyoming.

  2. anon

    Over at his blog, Glenn Greenwald highlights an article that takes the bought-and-paid-for-government problem a step further:

    UPDATE IV: In Slate, Anne Applebaum actually argues that the Wall Street protests are anti-democratic because of their “refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions.” In other words, it’s undemocratic to protest oligarchic rule; if these protesters truly believed in democracy, they would raise a few million dollars, hire lobbying firms filled with ex-political officials, purchase access to and influence over political leaders, and then use their financial clout to extract the outcomes they want. Instead, they’re attempting to persuade their fellow citizens that we live under oligarchy, that our democratic institutions are corrupted and broken, and that fundamental change is urgent — an activity which, according to Applebaum, will “simply weaken the [political system] further.”

    Could someone please explain to her that this is precisely the point? Protesting a political system and attempting to achieve change outside of it is “anti-democratic” only when the political system is a healthy and functioning democracy. Oligarchies and plutocracies don’t qualify.”

    1. Rex

      Watched Rachel Maddow this evening (Oct 17). In one part she interviewed Barney Frank who mainly whined that the protesters aren’t doing things properly ie. through voting for Democrats that’s worked so well recently.

      I looked for a link that gets right to the interview — this may work —
      You may need to find the section titled *Barney Frank: “I’d Like To Go Even Lower” On Surtax For Millionaires*

      My immediate thought was that they had two years of pretty strong power and they didn’t fix much. Voting is working so well for us to this point. Choices between rocks and hard pointy places abound.

      I guess not only the bankers are a bit uncomfortable about this OWS kind of uprising.

      1. patrick

        Mark Twain said: “If voting could change anything it would be illegal.

        Frank had the chance of making a significant change and he, Dodd, Obama, and the Democrats did nothing. We would be foolish to think that they have learnt any lessons since.

  3. Linus Huber

    That the legislator has been corrupted is obvious considering how banks were able to get the laws that allow them to loot the system. We have too wide a gap between justice and the law. Occupy wallstreet is one of the results of this situation but people generally are not yet able to pinpoint where the system went wrong. In my opinion it all starts with the spirit of the rule of law that has been violated repeatedly in favor of the few at the expense of the many. The few better start running because such great injustice caused by the effectiveness of lobbying by financial interests will unleash a powerful reaction.

  4. sleeper

    The old adage is the congress holds the purse strings that is they set taxes and spending.

    So to raise funds the congress routinely sells tax code “adjustments”. That is why the tax code is so long convoluted. So any congressinal talk on taxes or simplefing taxes is the pot calling the kettle black.

    These guys will happily sell their grandmother if need be.

    And the MSM ought to be prefacing their interviews with –

    Good morning Congressman. Welcome to Talking Heads.
    Before we get started could you tell us how much you’ve paid so far for your committee seat ? Oh and how’s the fund raising going ?

  5. Z

    I worked for a democratic congressional campaign in 2006 … this was back when the despicable emanuel ran the dccc. Our candidate was against the Iraq War, which is why I volunteered to work for his campaign. The polling data we got was produced by Lake Research run by democratic establishment hack Celinda Lake. I strongly believe that the polling was either provided by the dccc or the dccc strongly encouraged our campaign to use Lake. The polling data came up with really srewy conclusions such that even the voters in my congressional district, which was predominately republican, that were not in favor on bush were still in favor of the war. That didn’t make much sense to me, but that’s what Lake’s outfit came up with, which just happened to support what emanuel was pushing for democratic candidates: don’t run against the war. Though I didn’t realize what was going on at the time as I was removed from the inner strategic workings of the campaign, emanuel was heavily backing democratic candidates who either favored the war or didn’t make an issue of it over those that were running on opposing it despite the fact that the majority of the public was going against the war. Our candidate went to dc to talk to the dccc about getting funding from them and shortly afterward changed his views on the war to the point that he even took the stance that he would have voted in favor of the resolution to allow bush the power to go to war with Iraq.

    The democrats won a ton of seats in the 2006 election becoz the country was fed up with bush and the war, but emanuel made sure that the “right” kind of democrats won: ones that were more beholden to the establishment than the people which set the stage for the numerous “compromises” the democratic leadership have made with the blue dogs to pass pro-corporate, pro-war, pro-wall street legislation.


  6. Timothy Gawne

    Excuse me: partisanship and deadlock? In your dreams! I wish we had more partisanship and deadlock, it might be a good thing.

    We only have ‘deadlock’ when there is the potential for voting for something that might benefit the average American. When the rich and powerful want something there is absolutely no deadlock at all. Not a jot.

    Look at how easily congress passed the latest ‘free’ trade bill giving away yet more American jobs and industries. Or how easily they gave away trillions in dollars to the big banks. Or how easily they pass bills giving hundreds of billions to the big defense contractors. No debate, no muss, no fuss.

    With respect, any talk of ‘deadlock’ is just missing the point, and allowing yourself to be fooled by the Kabuki theater that is American politics.

  7. Philip Pilkington

    Ferguson is so droll. Look up the word ‘droll’ in the dictionary and Ferguson’s face will be staring at you in the definitions. It’s almost worth having a hopelessly corrupt political system just to hear Ferguson’s infinite drollness!

  8. mobster rule

    Since trading in influence and abuse of function are institutionalized in Congress, it’s interesting that the international review of the US for the Convention Against Corruption was scoped to exclude Articles 18 and 19 regarding trading in influence and abuse of function. Previous review efforts reported without comment the US claim that it had the two offenses covered by USC bribery statutes. So I’m sure that given the rock-solid integrity of the Holder DoJ, we can expect a rerun of ABSCAM any day now, huh?

    1. Joe Rebholz

      So congress should change the way committee assignments are made. Below is a suggestion. I make this suggestion not because I think it will be accepted now or later, but just because if we don’t put out ideas of how things might be improved, they never will be improved. Articles like this without suggestions for improvement are likely to increase cynicism and hoplessness. So here is the suggestion:

      Have committee assignments, chairmenships, all other leadership positions be determined by vote of the whole chamber. And no money raising requirements by parties for any elected person. This might even get rid of the party system.

      Think about it, modify it, make other suggestions. There are probably a zillion ways to fix this. Think about it even if you don’t believe there is any way they — congress — will change. Because they surely won’t if we can’t imagine a better system. We have to imagine better systems and then push to implement them.

      1. propertius

        And you expect a corrupt Congress to vote to eliminate the corrupt system from which they all benefit? Really? It seems to me that the only way to get something like this implemented is to throw out every single incumbent, regardless of party (since both parties are in on the game). That’s certainly my plan.

  9. Schofield

    Chime this with half the representatives in Congress being millionaires and two-thirds being so in the Senate and you have a so-called democratic body which in reality represents mainly the interests of the rich.

    1. Blissex

      Sure, lots of representatives are rich, but they have always been, and after all it is campaign donors who choose candidates and voters who elect their representatives.

      Have the representatives who voted for PATRIOT, Iraq, TARP, etc. lost elections? No, they have been resoundingly elected again, because those policies are popular with corrupt, scared voters.

      The average representative may very well wish things were different, but their job is to represent the views of median or marginal voters or they lose that job.

      Why so few people ever mention that membership of political parties, not just unions, has shrunk enormously in the past several decades, putting them in a difficult financial position? Why so few people seem to realize that the Sierra Club and the AARP have much bigger memberships and financial resources than the parties (and the unions)?

      Those were free choices by citizen and voters too. The consequences are what you see.

      Again, the problem is not really representatives or democracy, because it works pretty well: Congress tries pretty hard to enact policies that by all measures are popular with voters, as re-election of most incumbents shows, and popular with campaign donors, as continuing donations show.

      If 50% of those eligible to vote don’t vote, and 95% don’t make campaign donations to support the candidates they vote for, that’s they free choice and they get all they deserve as a consequence.

      As someone wrote, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and this also means voting often and vigorously, and spending money to support your party.

  10. Blissex

    «anti-democratic because of their “refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions.” In other words, it’s undemocratic to protest oligarchic rule; if these protesters truly believed in democracy, they would raise a few million dollars, hire lobbying firms filled with ex-political officials, purchase access to and influence over political leaders, and then use their financial clout to extract the outcomes they want.»

    This indeed happened and it was called “trade unions” and they were defanged and shrunk because they were buying too much political influence and getting too much of what they wanted. Which was to exploit their power to take advantage of the USA public at large, just like every other interest group.

    «Instead, they’re attempting to persuade their fellow citizens that we live under oligarchy, that our democratic institutions are corrupted and broken,»

    But they have always been corrupted, but that did not mean they were broken. They were sort of working, because they were corrupted by competing interest groups, and corruption was therefore subject to checks and balances.

    And most USA voters and campaign donors really like the idea of a corrupt political process, as long as they get a cut of the proceeds.

    What has not worked for a while is that too many citizens lost interest in politics, and trade unions were crushed, and therefore only property and business interests buy politicians, and thus the outcomes are entirely skewed, and the politicians cannot choose sponsors.

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