The furor over the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission handed down yesterday revolves, as I wrote earlier, around the problems liberals have with the First Amendment’s protections of political speech. But what liberals claim they are seeking to protect is the integrity of our democratic process from those seeking to buy the votes or the influence of public officials. Given the stringent rules that exist to limit the behavior of officeholders, the line between making your voice heard and a corrupt quid pro quo can be hazy at times, but it is still there. Yet what often goes unnoticed or is, in fact, tolerated, is a different sort of corruption that is far more common than millionaires purchasing members of Congress. As Byron York wrote yesterday in the Washington Examiner, the ability of incumbent politicians to raid the public treasury for expenditures to buy the votes of certain constituencies is not only legal, it is the most decisive form of campaign finance available.
York went to Louisiana to report on the uphill race of Senator Mary Landrieu, an ObamaCare supporting Democrat seeking reelection in an increasingly deep red state. Polls show her in a dead heat against likely Republican opponent Rep. Bill Cassidy. But, as York found out, a lot of people whom one would think would be working to defeat Landrieu—including at least one local GOP official—are backing her. Why? Because Landrieu, who is seeking a fourth term in the Senate, has been lavishing some of New Orleans’ white suburbs—whose swing voters will probably decide the election—with a deluge of federal money, including a loan forgiveness provision inserted into a Homeland Security Appropriations bill, and every manner of post-Hurricane Katrina disaster funding known to the federal government.
While the ability of incumbents to use earmarks to feather their own political nests was supposedly banned by new rules, it appears Landrieu and most of her colleagues are undaunted by the regulations that were supposed to make it harder for members of the House and Senate to selectively fund favored constituencies while portraying themselves as hard-working servants of the people. As York makes clear, Mary Landrieu is buying more votes in Louisiana with taxpayer money than any Republican with access to the checkbooks of the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson ever could.
Political machines have always thrived at what might euphemistically be called “constituent service” since the earliest days of the republic. The men who ran Tammany Hall were able to dominate New York politics and loot the city’s coffers with impunity for more than a century because they were always willing to give a little of the money in their control back to loyal voters for minimal services or charity while they kept most of it for themselves. The same applied to every other political machine in the country. But while we think of legendary thieves like Tammany’s George Washington Plunkett as in no way comparable to many of those who serve in our government, his concept of “honest graft” has more in common with the way Landrieu and other contemporary politicians play fast and loose with the rules than most of us would like to admit.
Like Plunkitt, Landrieu, who is part of a political dynasty in Louisiana, views the federal budget as a piñata waiting to be broken open for her benefit. The ability of senators and members of the House to lavish money on people they want to curry favor with—and deny it to those they don’t care about—remains the biggest ethical dilemma facing the nation.
You can call that constituent service, but after the excesses of the last decade in which both parties plundered the federal treasury and created our massive budget/entitlement crisis, Congress was supposed to have turned the page and adopted a more fiscally sound approach to governance. Landrieu’s stands on the issues, especially on ObamaCare, have left her out of step with the views of most Louisianans. But York’s reporting leads him to believe that her ability to manipulate allocations and use taxpayer dollars to buy the votes of Louisianans is enough to make the difference between winning and losing in November.
Liberals can complain all they want about the efforts of large donors to support conservative causes and candidates, but neither the Kochs nor Adelson can boast of the kind of efficient vote buying that Landrieu is practicing on the banks of the Mississippi. Even more to the point, while those billionaires are trying to influence elections with their own money, pork-barrel politicians like Landrieu are doing it with yours.