Selling Washington

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In the New York Review of Books this week, Elizabeth Drew has perhaps the best overview yet written on the sordid ties between K Street and the Republican-controlled Congress in Washington. There’s far too much in here to do justice by way of excerpt, but these paragraphs on how companies raise money for candidates were particularly depressing—especially the last bit:

The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill in 2002 didn’t stop powerful companies and members of Congress from buying and selling influence. Representative Barney Frank, a major backer of the reform bill, says, “It works about the same as it did before.” But, he adds, because the new law banned large soft money contributions by individuals, corporations, and labor unions to campaigns for federal office, and maintained overall limits on how much a person can contribute to federal elections—doubling them from $2,000 to $4,000 per election cycle—everyone has to work harder to raise the money. Still, congressmen are seldom heard to complain that they can’t raise enough money and in fact, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, both the political par-ties and individual candidates are raising more money than ever. Lobbyists still manage to deliver large amounts to legislators by “bundling” smaller contributions.

They contribute most of the money they raise to incumbents who can be depended on to do favors—a major reason (in addition to gerrymandering) why there is serious competition in only 10 percent of House races, and only about five seats change hands in each congressional election. Members of Congress expect to receive contributions from local industries (and their workers)—say, the coal industry in West Virginia—and they back legislation to help them out as a matter of doing constituent work. It’s illegal for a firm to compensate employees for their political contributions, but, a Republican lobbyist says, a job applicant is often told that he or she is expected to make contributions, and salaries are adjusted accordingly.

Definitely read the whole piece. Abramoff and DeLay are just a tiny, tiny tip of a gruesomely large iceberg here.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

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It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

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Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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