If you turn to the news media to find out about political scandals, you would think the most threatening crisis we face is Larry Craig's soliciting sex in an airport restroom.
Yet day after day, our number one political scandal is the insidious influence of big money campaign contributions and lobbying. The media may not cover it regularly, but voters understand it. Many believe campaign contributions are little more than legalized bribery. They can see that the system rewards large contributions from those seeking favors from government.
Many politicians and contributors, on the other hand, defend the status quo; they say they would never agree to exchange a specific political favor for a contribution. Consequently, they argue that there is nothing wrong with them.
But those large contributions do buy access and goodwill, which leads to favorable treatment. Special treatment doesn't necessarily mean support of the donor's issue; sometimes it is something as subtle as toning down criticism of it. No matter how indirect the benefit, selling political favors to the highest bidder is wrong.
It is easy to show that some donors are attempting to get political favors with their money. While many voters contribute to their party or to candidates they support, nobody gives money to two candidates running against each other or to opposing parties. Nobody, that is, except lobbyists and people seeking favors from government.
Look at the political contributions made to Minnesota politicians by New Jersey real estate developer Zygi Wilf and his family. In 2004, he did not make any political contributions in Minnesota. But then, during the 2006 election the Wilf family gave $20,000 to the Minnesota DFL Party and $20,000 to the Republican Party. The Wilfs gave $10,000 to the DFL legislative caucuses and $12,000 to the Republican ones. They gave $5000 to Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty and $5000 to Mike Hatch, his DFL challenger.
Why would the New Jersey Wilfs start giving so much money in Minnesota in 2006? And why would they give equal amounts to opposing candidates and parties? Because Zygi Wilf purchased the Minnesota Vikings in 2005, and he is asking for as much as $700,000,000 in public money to subsidize a new stadium.
Political insiders are so accustomed to lobbyists and interest groups bearing contributions that many have been desensitized to influence peddling. A Republican Senator commenting on the Wilf campaign contributions, told Star Tribune reporter Mark Brunswick, "I don't think it parlays into any votes though." A DFL party executive responded to the contributions by saying, "There are many ways to participate in a democracy, and money is just one of them."
Picture what would happen if the Wilf family made similar contributions to NFL officials before the next Vikings - Packers game.
A referee saying, "I don't think the contribution parlays into any favorable calls" would satisfy neither the NFL nor its fans. And it is likely that an official saying the contributions are just a way to "participate" in football, would be thrown out of his job. The conflict of interest is obvious.
In politics, unlike football, the special interests who give the most aren't thrown out in disgrace. They are actually admired for their clout. Candidates accepting those contributions are seen as major players because of the amounts they can raise.
This isn't acceptable. Isn't fair treatment from our government even more important than fair officiating in our football games?
Although a major interstate highway bridge collapsed recently, the state doesn't have the resources to prevent future collapses by repairing structurally deficient bridges. With all the financial pressures facing the state, a $700 million taxpayer subsidy for a near-billionaire would appear to be a non-starter. It is hard to picture any politician willing to assess more taxes from their constituents to build this stadium.
But with $73,000 in campaign contributions, Zygi Wilf will certainly receive consideration by Governor Pawlenty and the Legislature. Mr. Wilf probably won't succeed this year, but if history is any indication, it will be only a matter of time, further lobbying, and more big contributions until he gets his way.
This is primarily not a problem of corrupt donors or corrupt politicians. It is a matter of human nature. Even if it is not a problem of intentional bribery, even if neither the donors nor the recipients believe there is buying and selling of votes, that perception makes little difference in the result. People seeking favors wouldn't keep investing money in politicians if they weren't getting a good return on investment.
I have authored legislation, Senate File 52, that addresses this issue through comprehensive campaign finance reform.
Until we pass SF 52 or similar legislation to tackle the issue of special interest money in politics, we will have the best government that special interest money can buy. Unfortunately, as long as special interest money can buy it, our government won't address crime or transportation problems, it won't deliver affordable healthcare for families, and it won't clean up the environment or protect consumers.
Forget about Senator Larry Craig's problems. If we want government of the people, by the people, and for the people, we had better make sure that the first Tuesday in November is an election, not an auction.