Like a Whorehouse

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Amitai Etzioni Professor of international relations, George Washington University

After teaching for 20 years at Columbia University, I chose to leave my tenured position there and move to The George Washington University. Since then, I have been asked (at least once too often): Why? Why did you move from such a prestigious university to a less distinguished institution? (Academics tend to care a great deal about this kind of pecking order, given that prestige is the main coin with which they are paid.) I made the move because I had become increasingly interested in the ways public policy is made on the national level. And, I soon learned that if you hang around Washington, there are numerous dinners, lunches, book parties, seminars and such in which you run into appointed officials and elected representatives. You can learn a lot at these sessions, and occasionally can plant a seed of an idea you care about. In short, I never regret the move to DC.

During these informal, social and often off-the-record meetings, I got a feel for how legislation is increasingly 'sold to the highest bidder' -- i.e. to the lobbies that can contribute the most dough. I saw how lobbies lavished expensive junkets on members of Congress -- sending them to a golf tournament in Palm Springs (all expenses paid; first class tickets, of course) and to a tennis festival at Scottsdale, Arizona (ditto). Congressmen were outfitted with monogrammed fine leather suitcases, with a dozen rental cars sitting in the parking lots with keys in the ignition, just in case their wives or mistresses (all members that I saw presented with such trips were male) wanted to do some shopping. (There are now some limits on these junkets but they are easy to circumvent). But, these luxuries were chicken-feed compared to the cash donations that the legislators got for their election campaigns. While junkets and gifts sweeten the lifestyles of these elected officials, without oodles of money, they could not get elected or re-elected. In short, their job, power, and future all hinge on raising money.

Time and again at these after-hours encounters, I heard Congressmen, especially those who had recently retired, use the phrase "this place has become like a whorehouse". Members of Congress need to raise so much cash just to stay in office (most get re-elected) that they no longer simply wait to be paid off--they actively solicit. They hit on lobbies of various special interests with deep pockets, asking for donations, for higher donations than they gave last year, or for one more round in this election cycle. Anyone who believes that these lobbies dish out boatloads of cash without getting anything in return probably also believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

Three examples follow. Many more are available on the website of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW).

Alaska's sole house member, Don Young (R) attended a fundraiser in 2005 that brought in $40,000 for his re-election campaign. The event was organized by a land developer who stood to gain substantially from the expansion of a certain highway in Alaska. The following year, Representative Young successfully directed $10 million (of U.S. tax payer dollars) towards the expansion of this highway -- right where this developer wanted it to go. This is in addition to the famous 'bridge to nowhere' that the same congressman has attempted to fund. (His daughter and son-in-law happen to own substantial property in this particular 'nowhere'.)

Down the coast a ways, California representative Jerry Lewis (R., former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee) approved hundreds of millions of dollars in federal projects for the clients of a particular lobbying firm. Meanwhile, the firm, its partners and their spouses contributed a total of $480,000 to Rep. Lewis' campaign committee between 2000 and 2005.

Lest you think otherwise, the case of Democrat anti-war champion John Murtha (D, Pennsylvania) should convince you that this is a truly bi-partisan issue. After working with Rep. Murtha on the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense for over a decade, a staffer founded a powerful defense lobbying firm in DC. In the 2006 campaign cycle, according to CREW, this firm (the PMA Group) and its clients contributed almost $300,000 to Murtha's campaign fund. Many of these clients have benefited directly from Rep. Murtha's position on the appropriations committee; in 2006 their companies received a total of 60 earmarks, worth a combined $95.1 million.

I leave it to economists to figure out why members of Congress sell out so cheaply, acting more like street walkers than call girls. (After all, you would expect whoever delivers the goods to get at least a 10% return, a cut that even a back-alley, unreliable fence can demand). Maybe this is the case because the competition among the whores is so intense.

There is only one way out of this problem. It is a way which -- I am the first to admit -- the majority of Americans do not care for: public financing of elections. It is an idea long advanced by Senators McCain and Feingold among others. It is also promoted by Common Cause . Those who fear that public financing of elections would stick tax payers with an extra burden -- the cost of the 2004 election cycle, according to some estimates, ran as high as $4 billion--should note that if public financing would kill even just a few of the special favors that Congress now dishes out to farmers, oil companies, pharmaceutical corporations among others, the net outcome on the public balance sheet would be very favorable indeed.

For those who doubt that elections can be cleaned up, a visit to the UK is in order. Election campaigns there last weeks rather than years, which, in itself, leads to a greatly reduced cost. Every candidate who qualifies receives a very modest financial allotment, as well as a certain chunk of time on the public airwaves. Those who spend more are denied their seat in parliament and the executive director of the campaign goes to jail. Furthermore, there is far less motivation for lobbies to make deals with individual members of the parliament because most votes are along party lines; that is, the decision of what to support is not up to individual members of the legislature but to their collective deliberations and caucuses.

Frankly I see no way to convince my fellow citizens of the need for a radical change in the ways elections are financed. I hence fear we will continue to get the best government money can buy; best for those with the deepest pockets.

Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at the George Washington University and, most recently, the author of Security First: For A Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (Yale, 2007).