Politicians Admit The Corruption Of Government By Money

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One of the most embarrassing aspects of U.S. politics is politicians who deny that money has any impact on what they do. For instance, Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania’s notoriously fracking-friendly former governor, got $1.7 million from oil and gas companies but assured voters that “The contributions don’t affect my decisions.” If you’re trying to get people to vote for you, you can’t tell them that what they want doesn’t matter.

This pose is also popular with a certain prominent breed of pundits, who love to tell us “Don’t Follow the Money” (New York Times columnist David Brooks), or “Money does not buy elections” (Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner on public radio’s Marketplace), or “Money won’t buy you votes” (Yale Law School professor Peter H. Schuck in the Los Angeles Times).

Meanwhile, 85 percent of Americans say we need to either “completely rebuild” or make “fundamental changes” to the campaign finance system. Just 13 percent think “only minor changes are necessary,” less than the 18 percent of Americans who believe they’ve been in the presence of a ghost.

So we’ve decided that it would be useful to collect examples of actual politicians acknowledging the glaringly obvious reality. Here’s a start; I’m sure there must be many others, so if you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments or email me. I’d also love to speak directly to current or former politicians who have an opinion about it.

• “Now [the United States is] just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congressmembers. … So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors …” — Jimmy Carter, former president, in 2015. (Thanks to Sam Sacks.)

• “You have to go where the money is. Now where the money is, there’s almost always implicitly some string attached. … It’s awful hard to take a whole lot of money from a group you know has a particular position then you conclude they’re wrong [and] vote no.” — Vice President Joe Biden in 2015.

• “Lobbyists and career politicians today make up what I call the Washington Cartel. … [They] on a daily basis are conspiring against the American people. … [C]areer politicians’ ears and wallets are open to the highest bidder.” — Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2015.

• “When you start to connect the actual access to money, and the access involves law enforcement officials, you have clearly crossed a line. What is going on is shocking, terrible.” – James E. Tierney, former attorney general of Maine, in 2014.

• “Allowing people and corporate interest groups and others to spend an unlimited amount of unidentified money has enabled certain individuals to swing any and all elections, whether they are congressional, federal, local, state … Unfortunately and rarely are these people having goals which are in line with those of the general public. History well shows that there is a very selfish game that’s going on and that our government has largely been put up for sale.” – John Dingell, 29-term Democratic congressman from Michigan, in 2014 just before he retired.

• “When some think tank comes up with the legislation and tells you not to fool with it, why are you even a legislator anymore? You just sit there and take votes and you’re kind of a feudal serf for folks with a lot of money.” —Dale Schultz, 32-year Republican state legislator in Wisconsin and former state Senate Majority Leader, in 2013 before retiring rather than face a primary challenger backed by Americans for Prosperity.

• “The alliance of money and the interests that it represents, the access that it affords to those who have it at the expense of those who don’t, the agenda that it changes or sets by virtue of its power is steadily silencing the voice of the vast majority of Americans … The truth requires that we call the corrosion of money in politics what it is – it is a form of corruption and it muzzles more Americans than it empowers, and it is an imbalance that the world has taught us can only sow the seeds of unrest.” – Secretary of State John Kerry, in 2013 farewell speech to the Senate.

• “I think it is because of the corrupt paradigm that has become Washington, D.C., whereby votes continually are bought rather than representatives voting the will of their constituents. … That’s the voice that’s been missing at the table in Washington, D.C. — the people’s voice has been missing.” — Michele Bachmann, four-term Republican congresswoman from Minnesota and founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, in 2011.

• “The banks — hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created — are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.” – Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in 2009.

• “There is no question in the world that money has control.” — Barry Goldwater, 1964 GOP Presidential nominee, just before retiring from the Senate in 1986.

• ”When these political action committees give money, they expect something in return other than good government. … Poor people don’t make political contributions. You might get a different result if there were a poor-PAC up here.” — Bob Dole, former Republican Senate Majority Leader and 1996 GOP Presidential nominee, in 1983.

• “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” — Jesse Unruh, Speaker of the California Assembly in the 1960s and California State Treasurer in the 1970s and 80s.

• “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” — Mark Hanna, William McKinley’s 1896 presidential campaign manager and later senator from Ohio, in 1895.

Again, please leave other good examples in the comments or email them to me at any time — I’ll keep updating this indefinitely. I’m looking specifically for working politicians (rather than pundits or activists) who describe a tight linkage between money and political outcomes (as opposed to something vaguer).

  • DHFabian

    Regardless of how much money flows to whom, how, and from which donors, we can’t expect the changes we need (to rebuild the economy, nation) because there appears to be no public will to do so. The various “movements” we see are focused on improving conditions for themselves alone. In this era, we have the Middle Class Only movement, and the Black Only movement. There is no legitimately populist movement with a focus on the common good.
    We can’t say who “The People” actually are, or what they want. The “masses” have been so successfully divided and subdivided by class and race that the best we can do is consider forming the proverbial circular firing squad.

    Without a movement — a strong “voice of the people” — government will continue doing whatever it wishes to do. I can certainly understand why people want to end the influence of big money in government — we’ve been calling for that for decades. But everything goes back to the fact that as long as there is no unity, no consensus, among ordinary people, Big Money will continue to control politics and policies.

  • Aquifer

    Talk is cheap – of course they will say this stuff, even as they turn around and “reluctantly” participate …

    So how many of these folks have actively sponsored and supported, say, a Con Amendment that would void Citizens United? How many have agreed to abide by the limits of public finance for campaigns …

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  • Robert Hodge

    Someone told me recently that “politicians who want ‘public money’ (public tax dollars with $ limits and NOT unlimited special interest money) were trying to game the system to have the public fund their campaigns. I told her that the only way that I could see out of this mess WAS to publicly finance EVERY election so that the PUBLIC voice was the only one that was heard. In other words… ten thousand dollar cap on a county race/fifty thousand on a state race/1 million on a national race PUBLICLY funded and NO more! That way we’d also see just how ‘fiscally responsible’ they were with their allotment. Once they’ve used up their expenditure…that’s it. Also, regional time zone primaries (as well as generals) within a 6 week time frame would greatly improve the ‘burn out’ factor for the voter. The numbers are examples and subject to reality and scrutiny, but you get the idea.

  • ThisOldMan

    There doesn’t need to be any strings explicitly attached (which would be illegal even in the era of Citizens United). Under the current system, you’ll never get the money needed to win a primary in the first place if it isn’t crystal clear you’re on the side of big business. That is why they say, with big grins on their hypocritical faces, that the money doesn’t change their votes: It’s actually true!