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, 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.


Emily said...

It’s easy to be cynical, especially when policy debates don’t go our way. But you bring up a really important point. Votes, not $$ keeps Members in office. Sometimes effective advocacy means you point that out to policy makers (although the ones who stay in office usually don’t need to be reminded). Thanks for posting this.

Stephanie Vance said...

I'll confess, I was scared to review the comments when I saw someone had written in. After all, when you say something outrageous like "maybe citizen voices can matter," many people like to take issue. I appreciate your nice note -- thanks for the shout out and happy advocating!