More than $3.6 billion was spent on congressional campaigns during the 2012 national election. Much of those funds came from outside contributors--from individuals, corporations and political action committees--to help candidates win election and influence their policies afterward. But that relationship between politicians and their financial supporters is not as one-sided as you might think, says Peter Schweizer, a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
"I guess there are elements...where individuals in the outside are trying to influence members of Congress...but...it's just as common, maybe even more common, where members of Congress are giving members of the business community or individuals an offer they can't refuse. If they don't offer up campaign donations...lobbying contracts for friends or family members, bad things will happen to them so they feel compelled to give when they would rather just be focused on building their business."
Schweizer, author of the new book Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets, calls these donations "protection money," much like the money that some businesses pay the Mob so they can stay in business. A popular form of this on Capitol Hill is known as "milker bills"--legislation introduced by members of Congress for the purpose of extracting money from businesses, says Schweizer. The congressional sponsors "don't care whether [these bills] become law or not; their purpose is to extract donations and favors from businesses. "
Schweizer says congressional members mimic not only the practices of mobsters but also professional wrestlers.Referring to the Democrats and Republicans, he says, "[You] think these guys in the ring really hate each other but after you watch it for a while you realize that they're in business together and that there is money to be made by hyping the sense of conflict."
That may often be the case but during the government shutdown,the venom exchanged between members of opposite parties--and some would say between members of the Republican Party--seemed very real. And it’s not clear yet whether that debacle will help or hurt fundraising in the future.
Another popular fundraising shakedown tactic, says Schweizer, is the "tollbooth" whereby Congressional leaders solicit funds before they allow a bill to advance to a floor vote. In the video above he explains how that tactic was used to solicit from AT&T executives a day before the Wireless Tax Fairness Act of 2011 was brought to a floor vote.
"It's shocking how many fundraisers members of Congress are holding the day before an important vote in a committee or on the full House floor," says Schweizer. "And the affected industry knows...you better pony up or you're not going to get a fair shake from that member of Congress."
Schweizer wants the system to change. He recommends that Congress do what 27 states have done: restrict members from soliciting or receiving campaign contributions while Congress is in session and restrict spending by leadership PACs--those PACs formed by politicians, not businesses or unions, to help finance political campaigns.
While that may seem like pie in the sky Schweizer himself has had some influence in Washington. His earlier book Throw Them All Out, which exposed Congressional insider trading, was the basis for the STOCK Act which made that illegal.
"We have to put restrictions on the politicians--the people selling the influence--not just put restrictions on the people buying the influence," says Schweizer. In the meantime he says citizens can follow how money is spent and solicited in Washington by checking out opensecrets.org and overlaying that with the progress of legislation under consideration on the Hill, which can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov.
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