05/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It Only Cost $31,000? Really?

Today's New York Times front paged one of those stories that reveals much that is wrong with official Washington and our economy.

There are few more vicious participants in the economy than the so-called "pay day lenders" - those storefront practitioners of loan sharking that prey on the working poor. With unregulated fees and interest rates often leading to APRs of 400% and higher, it is possible to get very rich off of very poor people.

And one such individual is W. Allan Jones, the founder of Check Into Cash, the third largest pay day lender in the country, that has provided Mr. Jones with a grotesquely opulent lifestyle.

The article should be read in its entirety, but here is the short version. For legal campaign contributions of $31,000 to Sen. Bob Corker (Republican of Tennessee), Mr. Jones and his relatives appear to have purchased an effective exemption from Federal regulation in the Senate's version of post-collapse financial reform. Such an exemption is no doubt worth hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions.

Of course, it must make any reader paying attention want to know what they might be able to purchase for only $31,000 (only a tenth of what Mr. Jones has spent on a single car).

Could I get Mr. Corker to allow bankruptcy judges to rewrite mortgages, as they have asked?

Or perhaps a spare billion or so to avert the financial crisis in the University of California?

Or how about providing mosquito nets to several million people in Africa so that they won't die?

The simple answer is that the Senate does not work that way. In a world where Republicans have decreed that they will essentially filibuster anything, those Senators who are between the 50th and 60th votes have a lot of power. And if you are a Senator trying to do something useful, whether it is provide extended unemployment insurance or regulate the Wall Street firms that DID bring down the economy, you get a little desperate to buy off those votes by taking suggestions. After all, the Senate raises vast sums of money with the argument that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

You see, Mr. Jones probably did not have to work very hard to get Sen. Corker to ask for a provision helping out the payday lenders. There are plenty of former Congressional aides willing to triple their salaries while losing their souls who would offer to write up language that would do the trick and pass it along to their friends on the inside who are building up the experience needed to become a highly paid lobbyist.

But this does not answer why this ugly process does not work in reverse? Why can't liberal donors buy good things on the cheap? Why do we have to knock on millions of doors, arrange hundreds of meetings and then hold our nose to get something that at least sounds like, if enforced at all, it might make a difference?

I don't really know. Perhaps senators who want what I want do it because they believe in it. Or perhaps they think it is somehow rude to hold up a Republican must pass bill with demands for good things. Or perhaps there are always enough corrupt Democrats who have already sold out - like Ben Nelson, or Blanche Lincoln, or Evan Bayh - that the good guys are never the ones holding the deciding vote.

Anyway, go read the article. And dream for just a little while what you would want for $31,000.