We often compare the campaign fund-raising game to bribery, on the assumption that those with a financial stake in government decisions go looking for politicians willing to help them in exchange for gifts to the campaign warchest. It’s not hard to find examples of such favor-seeking: A recent story indicates the Koch brothers, who give millions to elect pro-fossil fuel politicians, stand to make $100 billion if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved.
But the campaign fund-raising game can also be seen as extortion – an organized effort by elected officials to shake down those with an interest in legislation. In a New York Times oped, Peter Schweizer introduces a term I hadn’t heard and explains how it works:
“Take the maneuver known inside the Beltway as the “tollbooth.” Here the speaker of the House or a powerful committee chairperson will create a procedural obstruction or postponement on the eve of an important vote. Campaign contributions are then implicitly solicited. If the tribute offered by those in favor of the bill’s passage is too small (or if the money from opponents is sufficiently high), the bill is delayed and does not proceed down the legislative highway.”
Schweizer cites two examples: John Boehner holding up votes on three bills in 2011 for a few days while collecting $200,000 from the industries involved, and a “milker bill” gambit operated by Obama and Biden, who played their Hollywood donors against their Silicon Valley donors when the lobbies were at odds over an intellectual property rights bill, collecting millions before abandoning the legislation.
There are reforms possible, Schweizer writes: “The reason these fund-raising extortion tactics succeed is that politicians deploy them while bills are making their way through Congress, when lawmakers possess maximum leverage. That’s why at least 27 state legislatures have put restrictions on allowing state politicians to receive contributions while their legislatures are in session.”
Which reminded me of a Beacon Hill tradition I’ve long criticized. Every year in the spring, the House Ways & Means Committee releases its budget, signaling the beginning of the real horse-trading season. That week, the House Speaker – Finneran, DiMasi and DeLeo have all done it – hosts a fund-raiser within walking distance of the Golden Dome, with every lobbyist in town expected to attend. That’s not bribery; it’s extortion.
Unfortunately, while some of the most egregious abuses might be discouraged by limiting fund-raising to the times the legislature isn’t in session, the Congress – and the Massachusetts state Legislature – are in session year-round.