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 process.

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 most effective.

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 themselves?

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 the election.

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 basis.

MM: Who are the main corporate sectors that support the Democratic Party?

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 Petroleum?

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 of money.

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, Burnham.

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, were retained.

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 other Senator.

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 a "reformer."

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 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 company.

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 States.

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 comes from.

MM: Why don* corporations pour more money into the political process?

Lewis: They're working on it. They increase the amounts every year.

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 in politics?

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 either campaign.

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 money.

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 choice.

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.

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