The Buying of the President
An Interview with Charles Lewis
Multinational Monitor magazine, March 2000
Charles Lewis is the founder and executive director of the
Center For Public Integrity, a non-profit, nonpartisan watchdog
organization that produced The Buying of the President in 1996
and The Buying of the Congress in 1998, as well as the recently-issued
The Buying of the President 2000. Lewis was formerly an investigative
reporter for ABC News, as well as a producer for the CBS News
program 60 Minutes. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998.
Multinational Monitor: You've titled your book The Buying
of the President 2000. What is it that companies or unions get
when they make contributions to candidates?
Charles Lewis: What they get is privileged access to power
and influence over policies. Our democracy operates under "pay
to play" terms. There are the 96 percent of Americans who
don't give a dime to any politician. Only one-tenth of one percent
of the population makes a $1,000 maximum contribution, so we're
talking about a narrow sliver of society sponsoring our electoral
MM: How direct an influence do donors buy?
Lewis: It's not always one dollar, one vote. There are nuanced
issues and lawmakers usually have dozens of reason why they should
vote for or against pieces of legislation.
Politicians are also not obligated to explain their decisions
and frequently don't talk to journalists and the public about
why they made a decision on some public policy issue. And certainly
if the subject of money comes up, they won't be terribly honest
about the influence of money.
With that said, there are large sums of money going to the
two parties and to the politicians from both parties, including
the presidential candidates. A lot of these contributors have
received a number of multi-billion dollar favors which these particular
lawmakers and political parties have helped to facilitate. That
to me is pretty direct.
MM: Do you think it's the case that the contributions are
more effective at buying particular kinds of favors - say a focused
tax break - than at shaping policy on broader questions like the
budget deficit or social security?
Lewis: Usually a company's interest is much more narrow. They're
not usually interested in large macro-economic or other issues.
They're usually interested in very specific things that they want
that will bring them large sums of money. A tariff reduction here,
a subsidy there. Or a pork barrel project.
Of the thousands of votes that are cast by lawmakers, a lot
are things that the average lawmaker doesn't know anything about
or care much about, and about which the public is not well-apprised
by the media or anyone else. That's usually where the money is
The money is not usually terribly relevant on things like
Kosovo and other larger big-picture legislation that occasionally
does come up before the Congress.
MM: What is the difference in how political money affects
Congress versus the White House and regulatory agencies?
Lewis: The reason Congress is so important is that they control
the purse strings and the authority of the regulatory agencies
of the executive branch.
An industry will seed members of the committees that have
jurisdiction over the industry with substantial money every election
cycle. Companies and their lobbyists host fund-raisers for the
committee members and make sure that others in their industry
give them money, so it's not just a contribution from one CEO
or PAC (political action committee), it's bundled money. When
a member of Congress is trying to raise over a million for a House
seat and an average of four to five million dollars for a Senate
seat, they remember and care about six figure contributions.
There are also the social relationships. Most Congressional
staffers are on Capitol Hill for a couple of years to punch their
ticket so they can leave and get a "real job" in the
private sector- at triple and quadruple the salary. So there's
this sort of incestuous culture at the personnel and human relations
level between governmental staff and company employees.
Then there's the downtown regulatory community. There's a
revolving door problem there. Whether you're talking the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration or
the Environmental Protection Agency-any or the various agencies
- the industry is hiring a lot of those regulatory officials into
their ranks. Those regulatory officials are going to become lobbyists
and go into the private sector around those industries, because
that's what their expertise is should they choose to leave the
government. So those agencies are not going to do anything to
rile Congress, particularly those committees.
There's a triangle here: the executive branch and its regulatory
agencies, the members of the two houses of Congress, and the industry.
The industry usually uses both, but can influence Congress most
directly. That's not to say they don't do all kinds of things
with regulatory agencies, like litigation that wears them down.
Any smart company knows to use all of these levers in Washington.
With 240 Congressional committees and the diffusion of power in
Washington over the last 30 years, companies have countless ways
to thwart any regulation and thwart any change to the status quo.
And they have many back-door ways to get favors in terms of tariffs,
subsidies and all kinds of goodies.
MM: How does the fundraising process affect the candidates
Lewis: It means that you're getting two kinds of candidates
- either millionaires or those who don't mind spending a good
part of their day dialing for dollars. We have good people that
are unwilling to enter politics now because the amounts of money
needed to be raised are so high, and because the demeaning process
of schmoozing and cozying-up with the people you are going to
be regulating and overseeing is smarmy and obnoxious to a lot
of good people. If a candidate doesn't have enough money, if he
or she decides they're not going to participate in that way of
doing things, it's all wonderful and noble, but usually it's unsuccessful.
It means they will not get much media attention.
The U.S. media is covering politics at the national level
half as frequently as they did in 1992. The only way to get your
message out is to pay for ads. It's very difficult for anyone
to take the "high road" in politics anymore because
there is no other effective way to get your message to the voter.
MM: What about at the executive level ?
Lewis: At the presidential level, it's the Super Bowl of influence
mongering. If you're a leading presidential candidate, you've
got to raise a minimum of $30 million the year before the elections.
You've got to be willing to go to 250 fund-raising events. You've
got to be willing to travel 80 to 90 percent of the time the year
before the election, because you know that 90 percent of the money
in the 1999-2000 cycle is going to be given in the year before
There's a preselection process by the nation's wealthiest
elites. Those thousand dollar donors are going to plop their money
down on the winners before Iowa, before New Hampshire, before
any votes are actually cast.
Five GOP candidates bit the dust months before any votes were
cast because they were deemed unworthy by the large monied interests
in the country.
Reporters now use the figures on how much money a candidate
has raised as a litmus test of viability more than they've ever
done before. And so the story throughout 1999 was the inevitability
of George W. Bush.
There was not much discussion of where the money came from,
it was mostly, "Gee whiz, he's got so much money and such
a strong organization, he's going to be the next president."
That sucked all the air out of the room for the other GOP candidates
because they all looked and had the stench of losers.
MM: If it was just raising the most money, Forbes would have
won the race. What* the exact role that money plays?
Lewis: Money is not the only ingredient, but it is an essential
ingredient to a successful presidential campaign.
Without exception, in every presidential election since 1976,
the year after the Watergate reforms, the candidate who raised
the most money the year before the election has received the nomination
of his party.
If someone has really terrific ideas but they didn't start
years before the election in their quest for the White House and
they're not willing to go out and find $30 million, they're out
of luck and the country's out of luck. We're not going to hear
from those people; they're not going to have a chance.
MM: What are the different ways large donors can contribute
to candidates for both Congress and the presidency?
Lewis: In the last four or five years the level of secrecy
has increased. If you're a large donor and you want to move large
sums of money, you can do it silently, secretly, legally. A lot
of states now have non-federal accounts, so people can raise money
and hide it. States have become the new Cayman Islands of campaign
finance. You can contribute to a state fund for a candidate or
leading member of the House or Senate without the contribution
being subject to federal limits and disclosures.
In addition to giving to the candidate directly, large donors
can give to industry political action committees (PACs) which
give to the candidates; raise bundled money from both individuals
and PACs, which can suddenly put the total contribution up into
the six figures; and fund issue-ad campaigns.
If you're upset about gun control efforts or tobacco regulation
or this or that subject then you can call yourself The Committee
for Blue Skies or some silly name and dump a million dollars into
a house race. The public will never really know who you are, and
you can overwhelm any opponent.
There were cases in the 1998 Congressional elections where
there was literal extortion: an incumbent member of Congress was
told that if he didn't agree to take a certain position, a special
interest would dump a million dollars on his head in issue ads.
One hundred fifty million dollars was spent in soft money
on issue ads in 1996. In 1998, it was $300 million. This year,
it will be $500 million to a billion dollars.
All the attempts starting in the Watergate era to identify
where the money is coming from and having transparency in our
democracy are beginning to erode. I'm not even talking about regulation,
just about disclosure.
Those mechanisms don't count taking candidates on corporate
jets and hiring their staff and even dangling the prospect of
maybe hiring them someday if they go out of politics.
When we hear that someone goes on a privately funded trip,
we think that's terrible. What we often do not realize is that
when supposedly educational organizations take a Member of Congress
on a theoretically legitimate mission to examine NATO or the Czech
Republic, there may be 70 corporate lobbyists on the plane with
them underwriting the trip. And the Members may stay in $500-a-night
hotels. None of this shows up in any of the records. All the Member
says is that they went on this trip and that it was paid for by
some serious-sounding institute. All of this is done on a regular
MM: Who are the main corporate sectors that support the Democratic
Lewis: Since being led by Tony Coelho and Charles Manatt in
the 1980s, the Democratic Party has tried to mimic the Republicans
in their outreach program to the business community.
Today the Democrats have substantial sums of money from Wall
Street-including the investment banking, real estate, insurance
and other financial service-related industries.
They are also now penetrating into the oil world. Atlantic
Richfield, a traditional large donor to the Republican Party is
now also a leading patron of the Democratic Party.
The Democrats have had substantial ties to Hollywood, at least
throughout the 1990s-not just lots of well-known celebrities but
major studios including Disney, and the telecommunications companies
that are now starting to dominate Hollywood. Clinton and Gore
have made extraordinary efforts to reach out to Silicon Valley
CEOs and their companies.
For all intents and purposes, it's very difficult to find
a leading industrial sector that does not contribute substantially
to the Democratic Party at this point.
There are certain groups in society which are usually identified
with one side or another. Unions usually give to Democrats. Trial
lawyers usually give to Democrats. In terms of business interests,
all of them invariably give more to the Republicans than the Democrats.
But the Democratic Party is not happy about that at all and they
would like to get much more money than they've been getting. The
telecommunications industry-the hottest industry in America today
in terms of sheer volume-gives about two to one to the Republican
Party, but that "one" represents multiple millions of
dollars and there are a lot of Democrats doing a lot of friendly
things for that new burgeoning industry.
MM: What is the relationship between Al Gore and Occidental
Lewis: Al Gore has had a long-standing personal and financial
relationship with Occidental Petroleum, the people who brought
us Love Canal in the 1970s via Hooker Chemical.
The late controversial chairman Armand Hammer knew Gore very
well before his death and Occidental gave Al Gore's father a $500,000
a year job after he lost his Senate seat. Armand Hammer bragged
that he had Al Gore, Sr. in his back pocket.
Three hundred thousand dollars has accrued to Al Gore Jr.
from a mining deal between Armand Hammer and his father in Tennessee.
The Occidental Petroleum company has given $500,000 or $600,000
to the Democratic Party and Al Gore over the years, and it was
one of the few companies invited to travel with Ron Brown on his
trade missions to Russia. There was a stay-over in the Lincoln
Bedroom and a lot of other coziness with the Clinton-Gore administration.
The most interesting thing was a parcel of land that had been
lusted over by the oil industry for much of the twentieth century.
The Elk Hills land reserve, which was part of the famous Teapot
Dome scandal back in the 1920s, had been socked away for national
security reasons. In the 1970s and 1980s, the oil companies had
pressured the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations to get access
to this land, and Congress had blocked all of these efforts.
As part of his "reinventing government" program,
Al Gore suggested that the federal government finally sell off
the Elk Hills reserve, and that's ultimately what happened. The
land was bid on and sold to Occidental Petroleum, which tripled
its oil reserves overnight.
It's a very interesting relationship. For just a few hundred
thousand dollars, this oil company will end up getting billions
of dollars of revenues off of what was once federal land. And
Al "Earth in the Balance" Gore, supposedly a staunch
environmentalist, was one of the people paving the way.
MM: Who are the long-standing patrons of Gore besides Occidental?
Lewis: His top career patron in terms of sheer dollar amount
is Ernst & Young, which is one of the largest accounting firms
in the world. They are involved in lobbying for tax breaks for
corporations. Their top person, Jeffrey Hirschberg, is one of
the leading fund-raisers for Gore. They've given over $125,000
over the years to Gore.
You've also got Bell South, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Viacom,
Walt Disney, Loew's (a tobacco company), Time-Warner, Bell Atlantic
and AT&T. Al Gore is very close to the business community
around the nation and his top 10 career patrons reflect that.
MM: What industries is Bradley close to?
Lewis: What most people find interesting with him is his Wall
Street connections. As a former member of the Senate Finance Committee
involved with tax positions, he's extremely close to Wall Street.
A lot of his New Jersey constituents even worked in that community,
which is how he would probably defend all this. His top five career
patrons are Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Chase Manhattan
and Morgan Stanley. His top patron gave $454,000, which is a chunk
Bradley has done all kinds of favors for Wall Street firms.
For instance, there's a limit on how much you can sue stock brokerage
firms as an investor today. Bradley was one of the people behind
the legislation that set that limit. He was also very supportive
and protective of the corporate takeover artists like Drexel,
It was also Bradley who helped to phase out the IRA [Individual
Retirement Account] in the 1980s that a large number of Americans
were paying into for their retirement. Other IRAs like the Keough
plan, which benefits a lot of doctors and lawyers and investors,
Bradley also introduced 45 bills for chemical companies, not
all of them from New Jersey. These are companies that make resins
and dyes and pesticides and other chemical or related products
- some of the world's most dangerous chemicals-and they wanted
to bring in chemical components without paying tariffs. From an
environmental and corporate welfare perspective what Bradley did
was arguably controversial.
He was also the king of bundling - that process of combining
donations. He did more of that in his last Senate race than any
His last year as a U.S. Senator, he took more privately funded
trips than any other member of the U.S. Senate-160 trips altogether,
some of them around the world. This is not the image one has of
MM: How about the other insurgent in the race, McCain?
Lewis: McCain is, to use Jerry Brown's wonderful phrase, and
similar to the others, a "flawed vessel."
His leading patron is Charles Keating, the infamous S&L
operator. McCain's career almost ended years ago over the Keating
Five scandal. Because of that, he wrote a check to the U.S. Treasury
to make up for the amount of that contribution. Because of this
symbolic gesture of atonement, we did not formally list Keating's
cash in the book's top 10 career patron list.
McCain's patron list reflects his position in power today
He is the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and there
are thousands of companies desperately seeking attention and favors
from that committee and McCain himself. You have companies like
U.S. West, AT&T, Viacom, Bell South, Bell Atlantic and on
U.S. West, his top patron, has monopoly phone service in 14
states including Arizona. McCain introduced the Internet Regulatory
Freedom Act, which would give Internet access to U.S. West for
its customers. The same day he introduced the bill, the CEO of
the company, Solomon Trujillo called a news conference and was
crowing about how this would bring millions of dollars into his
There are a number of similar favors he's done for various
companies. He put a hold on Senate legislation to try to preserve
a land deal that Dell Webb Corporation was working on.
MM: Now has Bush performed as governor of Texas?
Lewis: You could say he's had an open-door policy towards
the most powerful interests in Texas. He raised $40 million in
two election cycles before running for president. And he raised
over $310,000 a day while running for president in 1999, which
doesn't come from backyard bake sales and barbecues. He's raised
more than two and a half times the money than any previous U.S.
presidential candidate, so these are eye-popping numbers.
George W. Bush is the only leading presidential candidate
who is not at all interested in changing or reforming politics.
Four of his top five patrons are oil-related companies. He
is, of course, a former oil man himself. He is very close personally
with a lot of oil people and has appointed them to all kinds of
positions in his administration as governor.
The Enron Corporation, his largest single patron, has given
Bush $550,000 over the course of his career up until June of 1999.
Enron is the largest buyer and seller of natural gas in the United
Texas has some of the most notorious air pollution in the
country. Rather than actually enforce the clean air laws and regulate
these companies for their pollution, Governor Bush worked closely
with the polluters. A couple of oil companies actually wrote some
legislation that became a voluntary compliance program-which like
most voluntary programs hasn't worked very well.
The most interesting thing about Bush, is the way in which
he made $15 million by investing a few hundred thousand dollars
in a baseball team, the Texas Rangers, and then benefiting from
$200 million in taxpayer money and subsidies. His only success
as a businessman happens to have been on the public's nickel.
Most Americans don't have the ability, the clout or the inside
access to get anywhere near a deal where they make $15 million
from a $200,000 investment. It shows you who he is and where he
MM: Why don* corporations pour more money into the political
Lewis: They're working on it. They increase the amounts every
One of the things that is always so interesting is how little
they have to spend. This is chump change to most corporations,
but it works. The politicians desperately need the cash, so there's
a natural confluence of interests there, which is unfortunately
to the detriment of the public.
MM: What are the solutions to the problem of big money influence
Lewis: We're not a legislative advocacy group, but there is
a range of measures. The proposals range from public financing
to the most tepid suggestions like more disclosure.
One novel approach which never gets talked about would be
to have tough enforcement of election laws.
If two presidential candidates move tens of millions in party
money into their own campaigns, which appears to most people to
be against the law, they should actually get prosecuted for it.
We don't do that. In 1996, the FBI and the Federal Election Commission
(FEC) investigators all f It that the Dole and Clinton campaigns
had done what I just described, but the FEC' commissioners - three
Republicans and three Democrats - would not agree to sanction
The regulatory agency created after Watergate -the Federal
Election Commission-has been captured by the campaign industry
and the politicians it is supposed to regulate. To have the prospect
of issuing a subpoena the FEC has to have a majority vote. There
are six commissioners -three Republicans and three Democrats.
Somehow there's always a tie and they just can't issue a subpoena.
If they do investigate, it takes four or five years. If a
candidate gets in trouble, they pay the fine with their campaign
The bottom line is there are a number of potential solutions,
almost all of which would improve matters today. But there's the
issue of when this will happen, and when the heat will get so
hot in the kitchen that politicians will feel that they have no
That's why people have to vote. When 100 million people walk
away, and we have the lowest voter turnout in the last two election
cycles, and 40 percent can't even tell you the name of the Vice
President of the United States, people are voting with their feet.
Unfortunately, they're leaving the whole city of Washington and
the whole landscape that so significantly affects all of our lives
to special interests, which is exactly what they want.