Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Another Example of the Cash / Votes Conundrum

So, the Washington Post had an article today highlighting how Kay Hagan, a Senator from North Carolina, was the only Democrat to vote against the recently passed tobacco regulation legislation (N.C. Tobacco Farmers Find Friend in State's New Senator.) Now, before I go too far down this path, let me make it clear that this is not a post about the merits or demerits of tobacco legislation. Personally, I'm for regulating tobacco. I support efforts to reduce the burdens on our health care system caused by this product.

However, as long time readers of the blog might suspect, I do NOT support the ongoing speculations and cynicism in media reports about the motives of elected officials in their voting decisions. Sure, there are many examples of wrong doing by elected officials and we're all a little jaded by the political process. But does every story really have to try to tie an elected official's voting record to campaign contributions?

In this example, the Post notes that Kay Hagan took $19,200 from tobacco interests to help finance her Senate race. What the Post does not point out is that she raised a total of over $8.5 million for that cycle. Her tobacco money equaled approximately .2% of her overall funds. The same article notes that there are 50,000 people directly employed by tobacco in the state, which is about .8% of the employable population (assuming people under 18 and over 65 aren't working). This is a $7 billion industry in the state. Does it even make sense to suggest that she voted the way she did because of the money for her campaign, as many people have? (although this is not, I should be clear, what the Post said). Why can't we believe that she did it for her constituents?

In fact, she raised more money from individuals associated with EMILY's List, MoveOn.org and the health care industry than she got from tobacco. Her going against these "monied interests" seems to be a bigger story here and clearly those groups are not happy with her position on these issues (although she has been known as a long time tobacco supporter, so I'm not sure they're surprised).

The point here is that we already have an electorate that feels beaten down by special interests and powerless in the face of money and lobbying in the political process. These types of stories and inferences aren't helping. We can disagree with the decisions some politicians make -- and I do, frequently. But I really wish we wouldn't ALWAYS paste everyone with the "bought off politician" label simply because they disagree with us or they represent a part of the country with different interests from our own.  

It sounds terribly naive, I know, but I believe it is possible that many politicians do truly believe that what they are doing is in the best interest of their constituents. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Are members of Congress bought off by cash or votes?

I was struck by Dana Milbank's sarcastic and, let's face it, somewhat snarky description of the recent hearings on DOD appropriations issues on Capitol Hill (see Defending the Nation From Common Sense from today's Washington Post).

In it, he feeds into the common perspective that those terrible members of Congress in Washington, DC represent the corporate interests of their particular state far more than its citizens, much less the citizens in the rest of the nation. In referring to Senator Murray, for example, as the "Senator from Boeing" and picturing poor, beleaguered Defense Secretary Gates as ". . .(pleading) with the lawmakers to rise above the powerful contractors that fund their campaigns and influence their elections" (sniff) Milbank clearly points to greed and (possibly) corruption as the main drivers of defense spending in Washington, DC.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love a bit of satire as much as the next person, and I certainly appreciate all the fodder for it in Washington, DC. And Senator Murray and others don't need me to make excuses for them. But, let's try to be a little fair here. Sure, Senator Murray (and Senator Shelby and Senator Cochran and anyone else with a defense contractor in their state) wants to be sure that the devices made by those contractors continue to be made. But here's the question -- are they protecting these contracts in exchange for the campaign contributions? Or are the doing it to protect tens of thousands of jobs in their states -- jobs held by constituents -- jobs held by constituents who may vote -- jobs held by constituent who may vote and who are struggling through tough economic times?

Let's look at the numbers. According to opensecrets.org, The Boeing PAC, for example, has given $10,000 to Patty Murray in the current cycle (2005-2010). Overall, she has raised $5,385,000 in this cycle. The Boeing contribution represents LESS THAN .2% of her overall dollars. Even if you add in individual Boeing PAC contribution to that number, it's still less than .4% overall. That's "point" 4, NOT 4.

On the other hand, Boeing employs over 76,000 people in her state, which has a population of just over 6.5 million. In other words, 1.16% of the people in Washington State are Boeing employees. At a time when unemployment in the state is running 9%, you better bet she's going to fight to keep Boeing jobs, regardless of whether she gets money from the Boeing PAC or not.

Although I can't guess at Senator Murray's motivations any more than Dana Milbank can, I can offer up another and less sinister perspective on this story, and that is this: constituents DO have a powerful voice and level of influence in Washington, DC. Anyone who can demonstrate a constituent connection to a legislator can get in to their office and be heard -- not necessarily agreed with, but heard. I encourage people to read articles like Milbank's for fun (because it is funny), but to not let it fuel the cynicism that is keeping citizens away from the political process.

In short, the Senators insisting on keeping certain Defense spending in place could just as easily be doing it for the people they represent as the people that help finance their campaigns. For those who still find it appalling that elected officials would represent the interests of their own constituents over the good of the country, well, the truth is that's what representative democracy is all about.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Citizen Advocacy Interview with Mike Markarian of HSUS

I had a great time chatting with Mike Markarian of the Humane Society Legislative Fund about my new book, Citizens in Action.  You can read all about it (and see an absolutely adorable photograph of Ozzie, my infamous Australian Cattle Dog) on the HSLF's Animal and Politics blog. If you're feeling really cool, you can even read the same article on the Huffington Post.

Happy advocating!