fraud, and the initial wave of politician grandstanding having subsided,
it's a good time to step back and look more deeply at the role of money in
politics. Evidence suggests that the Jack Abramoffs are a distraction from
the real problem.
Certainly the Abramoff scandal has focused badly needed attention on the
quid pro quo between politicians and donors -- the granting of legislative
favors in return for big donations. But a key question has not been asked:
To what degree does WHO politicians raise money from affect overall policy,
especially in major policy areas?
To understand the role that private money plays in our elections, it's
important to understand what I call the "pyramid of money." Party leaders
such as Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Democrat House
minority leader Nancy Pelosi, as well as most incumbents from both parties,
don't need to spend a dime on their reelections since they represent
districts that are one-party strongholds.
This is not so much due to redistricting abuses as much as to the
noncompetitive nature of winner-take-all elections resulting from red and
blue partisan residential patterns. You cannot draw a competitive district
out of Pelosi's overwhelmingly liberal San Francisco district no matter how
you carve it. It turns out that most legislative districts are like that,
naturally tilted for one party or the other.
Nevertheless, party leaders and incumbents raise huge amounts of money for
their own reelections. Why? Because they funnel the money into
party-building activities, especially to finance colleagues in the handful
of hotly contested races. This in turn buys them influence among their
peers and powerful committee leadership positions. Think of it as a pyramid
structure with each party's Big Money Kings and Queens sitting at the top,
directing the flow of money to the predictably tight races, hoping to win a
majority of seats for their team.
The rest of the safe-seat incumbents, along with the lobbyists, lawyers,
allied PACs and donors, fill out the lower levels of the Pyramid, funneling
money into the Pyramid's labyrinth where it is directed by party leaders
skilled in the art of deception. It's a well-oiled operation, with lots of
give and take between the different levels of the team.
Indeed, comments by former House majority leader Tom DeLay reveal the extent
to which the lobbyists and special interests today play their subordinate
role in the Pyramid, following the lead of political leaders instead of vice
versa. Said DeLay, "No one came to me and said, 'Please repeal the Clean Air
Act.' We say to the lobbyists, 'Help us.' We know what we want to do and we
find the people to help us do that."
The case of lobbyist Jack Abramoff precisely illustrates the point.
Abramoff, who pled guilty to influence peddling and bribery, was not
involved in activities that affected major policy areas. Instead they
involved receiving favors from legislators -- including from DeLay -- for
himself and his business clients in exchange for large donations and perks
for legislators. DeLay got what he wanted -- large donations to grease his
political machine -- and Abramoff got what he wanted -- personal favors for
his businesses and clients. They scratched each other's backs, each playing
their respective roles in the pyramid of money.
So the Pyramid is the problem, much more than the quid pro quo. The quid pro
quo is repugnant but only a symptom of the bigger picture. Jack Abramoff and
his ilk are hardly the reason Tom DeLay and the GOP pursue certain policies.
Major policy directions are driven by the dynamics of the Pyramid, with its
one-party fiefdoms and Kings and Queens sitting atop the pile -- not by the
Certainly there are notorious examples of riders attached to bills because
some quid pro quo occurred between a donor and a powerful political leader.
But such riders usually are a small percentage of overall policy and
legislation, and most of the time such a blatant quid pro quo affects the
donor's personal business situation, not major policy areas -- an important
What this means is that even with strong campaign finance reform, breaking
up the Pyramid will be very difficult to do as long as we are using a
winner-take-all system where most legislative seats are lopsided one-party
districts, and invincible incumbents with no worries about reelection can
funnel their campaign funds to party leaders sitting atop the Pyramid's
If we don't understand the dynamics of how our political system works, we
will miss the mark when we try to reform it.
Steven Hill is Director of the Political Reform Program of the New America
Foundation and author of the recently published "10 Steps to Repair American