Nothing Innocent About Pay-to-Play

Stories about the pernicious influence of money in politics

are said to command the attention of about a dozen good-government types, six

editorial writers, a couple of columnists and John McCain. It’s unclear why

this has become a truism. It certainly can’t be that Americans prefer not to talk

about the power of money in general. Anybody who has even a passing interest in

modern athletics can tell you that fans are positively obsessed with the

pernicious influence of money in professional (and even amateur) sports.

These days, in order to sound informed while chatting with

rabid radio talk-show hosts, fans must throw around terms like “salary caps”

and “appearance money” with the confidence and brio of political talking heads

discussing the intricacies of the McCain-Feingold bill. So, if Joe from Queens

can immerse himself in the details of big-league business, why must we assume

that he’s loath to spend any time or energy considering public campaign finance

or bans on soft money?

Well, politics ain’t baseball, that’s for sure. It’s one

thing to take perverse pleasure in bemoaning the unfairness of Rey Ordonez’s

$19 million deal with the Mets; it’s quite another to get excited about Hank Morris’ now-scuttled deal to work for free for Alan Hevesi’s

Mayoral campaign. In the end, it isn’t money that we find uninteresting,

but the larger subject. Inside baseball is fun when the subject is baseball;

inside baseball can bore you to tears when the subject is politics.

Still, that’s not a good enough reason to push aside talk

about the rotten way we finance political campaigns. The standard argument

against limits on campaign contributions is that it’s a violation of free

speech: If Joe from Queens decides he likes Peter Vallone, there should be few restraints on the way he shows

his support. He can volunteer for Mr. Vallone. He can decorate his front yard

with Mr. Vallone’s lawn signs. And he can send Mr. Vallone money. It’s all of a piece, all a part of our participatory

democracy.

That’s a fine argument,

but the specific scenario is no more relevant to modern politics than the

election-eve torchlight parade. It’s not Joe from Queens who is polluting the political process with the exercise of his First

Amendment rights. It’s the favor-seeking corporate interests, political-action

committees and power machers whose

bundles of money have nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with

business. Which is to say that the favor-seekers regard the money they spend on

politicians not as a celebration of democracy, but as a fee they’re required to

pay in order to qualify for government contracts and access to decision-makers.

This charming arrangement

is known in the trade as pay-to-play. Want to make widgets for the state

Department of Small-Time Scams? You would be well advised to make a hefty

contribution to those elected officials who administer the department: the

Governor for sure, and maybe a big-shot state

legislative leader. Does your investment house want a piece of a municipality’s

pension-fund action? Your competence may be measured by the size of your

contribution.

A classic case of pay-to-play is developing in New

Jersey, where state investigators are looking into a

$500 million auto-inspection contract awarded to the California-based Parsons

Infrastructure and Technology Group. The Star

Ledger recently reported that a

Parsons lobbyist told investigators that companies looking for government

contracts routinely give money to politicians who give out those contracts. The

Star Ledger report noted that the

lobbyist made this admission matter-of-factly; in his business, it seems fair

to say, giving money to politicians is just another expense, like paying the

electric company to keep the factory’s lights on. On the day Parsons won the

contract (the company, incidentally, subsequently botched the assignment), a

company executive suggested that colleagues buy $1,000 tickets to then-Governor

Christine Todd Whitman’s annual fund-raiser.

Reformers in New Jersey

have proposed a bill that would prohibit contractors from making campaign

contributions to candidates for governor and the state legislature. And

businesses whose executives gave more than $5,000 to state political candidates

in a given year would be prohibited from bidding on government contracts the

following year. New York has a

tepid version of these restrictions on bond underwriters, and Mayor Giuliani

has proposed some restrictions on firms that manage city pension funds.

Opponents of the reforms in New Jersey

have cited the usual complaints about trampling on the First Amendment rights

of good-hearted citizens who wish only to show their support for their favorite

political candidates. But that simply obscures the reality of modern campaign

finance, which some might dare call a form of legalized bribery.

So wish New Jersey’s reformers good luck, and hope that one day

their courage will embolden the hearts of New York’s elected officials. Nothing Innocent About Pay-to-Play