Sitting with Sean Hannity last week, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul expressed his outrage at money received by Bill and Hillary Clinton over the years and actions that they may have taken as public officials to benefit those who contributed funds. In various guises, the Clintons have been the beneficiaries of billions of dollars of funds given over the course of their decades in public life, whether paid as political campaign contributions when they were in or running for public office, for speeches during their years as private citizens, or as contributions to support the activities of the Clinton Foundation, including the Clinton Global Initiative.
As we have watched over the years, Paul and Hannity rained down accusations on the Clintons, suggesting nefarious interconnections between the activities of the Clinton Foundation and ultimately Hillary's actions as Secretary of State. There was no allegation of a specific illegal act -- after all, unlike many of his colleagues in Congress, Paul is an ophthalmologist by training, not a prosecutor -- but instead suggestions of a broad conspiracy of money exchanged for political favors.
"How could this happen in America?" Paul railed on.
How indeed? As the foremost libertarian in Congress, a believer in free markets, and a principled opponent of government regulation, he should appreciate that in American politics, political influence is just one more marketplace. Republicans accusing the Clintons of illegal conduct from corruption to murder is nothing new. Bill Clinton was impeached after all. Voters returned him to office after waves of accusations and allegations, and today, after all that we have lived through -- the screeds published by Regnery press, the grist that launched Fox to the top of the network rankings, to say nothing of Bill's sordid womanizing -- Bill Clinton remains among the most admired figures in American life and Hillary is the presumptive presidential nominee of her party. Therefore, if one embraces libertarian theory and that markets incorporate all known information, then one must conclude that voters in political marketplace have long since rendered their judgment in favor of the Clintons.
The new wave of accusations against the Clinton's is nothing new. The commingling of money and politics has a long tradition in our democracy. I am sure that Paul would contend the growth of government spending over the course of the republic from 3 percent of GDP to 30 percent was driven by the simple fact that government spending benefits people and companies and that those beneficiaries fund political campaigns to protect their interests. Government regulation has grown because it protects private interests as well as protecting the common good, and those whose interests are protected regularly fund political campaigns to gain or secure such regulatory protection.
Even if these exchanges of political money for political favors are not illegal under our laws, Americans understand that money paid to gain political influence is a corrupting fact in our democracy. The Center for Responsive Politics tracks the flow of political contributions to members of Congress and for each two year election cycle. For example, according to CRP data Rand Paul raised $5.7 million in the run-up to his recent reelection to the Senate during the 2014 campaign cycle. Of that money, $834,000, or just under 15 percent came from the finance sector. I am just using Paul as an example, of course. Based upon CRP data, the financial services sector is the largest funder of political campaigns and lobbying at the Congressional level. Over the past ten years, that sector has spent over $3.8 billion on campaign contributions and lobbying, an amount that totals almost $1 million per member of Congress per year. The financial services industries have strategic interests in Washington, D.C., where their lobbyists work to promote and protect their interests, and call on those members whose campaigns they have funded to secure their support when needed.
Charles Koch, a libertarian like Senator Paul, has been outspoken in protesting the selling of corporate interests in the nation's capital. In his Wall Street Journal editorial in March 2011, he attacked crony capitalism and corporate purchasing of special favors including in Washington that he suggests erode our overall standard of living. Today, businesses -- including Koch Industries, Charles Koch concedes -- spend money in Washington because it works. There are few investments a company can make that offer a higher potential return on investment than government contracts or regulatory protection procured through campaign contributions and lobbying in Washington, D.C.
The average American shares the perspective that their government is for sale. It strains credibility to assert that political money of the magnitude reported by the Center for Responsive Politics is not provided for the purpose of influencing public policy and gaining a financial return. Charles Keating, the CEO of Lincoln Savings and Loan said it best a quarter century ago in the wake of an earlier financial crisis. Keating famously contributed $1.3 million -- a pittance by today's standards -- to the campaigns of five senators, seeking their help working with bank regulators. When asked during a congressional hearing in the wake of what became known as the Keating Five scandal if he intended to get something in return for his money, Charles Keating responded simply "I certainly hope so." And so it is today.
From the founding of the republic, the intermingling of money and political power have been central to the nation's politics. Today, Americans on the right and on the left, members of the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, are animated by their deep distrust of the workings of the nation's capital. Americans know instinctively that the financial collapse, the stagnation of the middle class, the increasing share of the economy dominated by the non-productive financial sector, and influence of political money are interrelated.
Of course, Charles and David Koch are major actors in the world of political money. They have famously committed to raise $900 million for the 2016 campaign cycle. They recently hosted a well-publicized retreat of potential Republican presidential candidates to vet their commitment to the Koch agenda. Charles Koch's principled opposition to the corruption of Washington, D.C., was not enough to keep him and his brother from being willing buyers in the political marketplace at the highest levels, and the slate of potential Republican presidential nominees that attended the Koch fandango in hope of winning a share of the Koch money -- which included Senator Paul -- showed that there were willing sellers as well.
As a general matter there is no stated quid pro quo in these matters, no smoking guns that link the payment of money to a specific vote by a member of Congress. Congress is comprised largely of lawyers who understand that under law a quid pro quo is the essence of a corrupt relationship. But the perception of corruption, as it is seen by the average American is not about the explicit quid pro quo, it is about the nature of the enterprise seen in its totality.
Rand Paul is not a lawyer, so perhaps his outrage stems from his perception of the totality of the Clinton enterprise, not whether any particular law was broken. "It reminds me of people using the system to enrich themselves, I think it looks unseemly," Paul concluded. And indeed it does.
But "How could this happen in America?" Clearly Rand Paul has not been paying attention. He should know well how this happens in America. He is a U.S. senator, after all.
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