Saturday, August 30, 2008

So Much For Obama's Change

The Financial Times issued the following report. The moral of the story: money talks and hmmm walks.

Lawmakers ignore special interests clampdown

By Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Denver

Published: August 30 2008 03:42 | Last updated: August 30 2008 03:42

On his path to winning the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama swore that he would change Washington by stamping out the influence of special interests who buy access and favours from the political establishment.

But there was little evidence that change was on the way in Denver. Despite the passage of ethics rules in Congress last year designed to curb the influence of lobbyists and other donors, the Democratic National Convention was funded almost entirely by corporations that pumped tens of millions of dollars into the event, using a loophole in campaign finance rules.

In restaurants and hotels, lawmakers mingled with lobbyists and other donors just as they do in Washington, out of the view of the general public, and seemingly unconcerned by Mr Obama’s stance against lobbyists – he has banned them from donating or taking paid positions on his campaign. Among the dozens of parties were JPMorgan’s salute to women governors, the Recording Industry Association of America’s concert featuring Kanye West, and a brunch hosted by Billy Tauzin, a former congressman who is chief executive of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical lobby group.

As the California delegation headed to a party thrown by AT&T on Monday to cap off the first day of the Democratic convention, they were greeted with goodies. Though these days, even gift bags come with disclaimers.

“We have been advised by counsel that we may not offer complimentary gift bags to public officials,” read a sign on one table.

Another sign said public officials might have to skip the nibbles because of ethics rules. The telecommunications group, a big sponsor of the convention, hosted another party attended by Steny Hoyer, House majority leader, who in June helped craft legislation that protected AT&T from lawsuits related to its alleged participation in the Bush administration’s warrantless eavesdropping programme.

Lawmakers seen at a party hosted by Washington lobbyists Heather and Tony Podesta appeared visibly uncomfortable when asked what they thought about Mr Obama’s stance on lobbyists.

Carl Levin, the Michigan senator, shrugged and said he had not followed the lobbying debate. “They are old friends of mine,” he said of the Podestas.

“The rules are the rules. But sometimes the rules defy commonsense,” said Steve Israel, a Long Island congressman who also attended the brunch. “A PAC [political action committee] can give a $5,000 contribution and discuss that member’s vote, but a $12 lunch where you are talking about the Mets is against the rules.”

Congressman Paul Kanjorski said with a smile that it would be better not to talk about it. For proponents of campaign finance reform, even more problematic than the parties was the corporate sponsorship of the convention itself, and the special access big party donors were given to Mr Obama’s speech.

Experts say that every election cycle raises the cost of access. When President George W. Bush ran for office in 2000, individuals who bundled donations on his behalf were given special status if they raised $100,000 (€68,000, £55,000). Today, campaign finance experts say, bundlers are raising as much as $500,000.

In all, private donations exceeding $112m will pay for about 80 per cent of the combined convention costs in Denver and St Paul, according to a study by the Campaign Finance Institute.

“Both candidates have talked a big game about reducing the influence of special interests,” says Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations. “But they don’t seem to have done much to rein in their political parties and the corporate subsidies underwriting the conventions that nominate them.”

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