After All, It’s a Multiparty System

Micah L. Sifry and Nancy Watzman, who both work at Public Campaign, are the authors of "Is That a Politician in Your Pocket? Washington on $2 Million a Day," published this month by John Wiley & Sons.

Forty years ago, some Americans had to fight to get into a national political convention. Today, people fight not to get into the convention but into the constellation of corporate-sponsored parties surrounding it.

Sunday night in the heart of Boston’s theater district, we stood in a crowd outside the ultra-hip Roxy nightclub, watching as limousines, town cars and cabs disgorged hundreds of revelers streaming inside for an exclusive $600,000 party featuring the Neville Brothers. The party, honoring the “Blue Dog” caucus of conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives, was paid for by about 30 corporate sponsors, including the Altria Group (the parent of Phillip Morris), Comcast (the cable giant), ConocoPhillips (the oil conglomerate) and Microsoft. We didn’t get in.

A few blocks away at the state Capitol, we were allowed in by representatives of the Congressional Black Caucus who were honoring the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. In 1964, Hamer bravely led a delegation from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the Democratic convention in Atlantic City, N.J., where they challenged the seating of an all-white slate of Mississippi segregationist Democrats. At the statehouse party, 14 surviving members of the MFDP were toasted.

But even here, corporate money added an incongruous note. Alongside a pencil-and-ink portrait of Hamer, the daughter of sharecroppers who risked her life and was brutally beaten for her civil rights activism, were banners prominently displaying the logos of Lockheed Martin and Verizon, the companies that underwrote the event.

In the wake of the new ban on “soft money” enacted as part of the McCain-Feingold law, which prevents the national political parties from accepting unlimited contributions from special interests, corporate cash has instead been pouring into the coffers of the nonprofit host committees for the Democratic and Republican conventions. Despite McCain-Feingold, these donations are still completely unlimited.


Together, the two party committees are expected to raise more than $100 million from private sources -- more than 12 times as much as they raised in 1992. Here, as in the presidential fundraising race, the Republicans are in the lead, expecting to raise $63.6 million to the Democrats’ $39 million. And that doesn’t even count the millions more that have been spent on hundreds of private parties.

What are these overwhelmingly corporate contributors looking for in return? It’s not so hard to figure out, but we decided to ask anyway. We approached Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) at the Hamer event and asked him why PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Bell South, Motorola and other corporations were throwing him events this week. “It’s a tradition that leaders of Congress are honored by certain groups,” he said smoothly. “To the extent they sponsor a party, they get a chance to talk to you.”

That sounds benign enough, but he knows as well as we do that when the parties are over, these donors come knocking, e-mailing, faxing and phoning, asking for paybacks on their investments. And all too often, they receive them.

The utility industry’s Edison Electric Institute, for instance, which has sponsored at least nine events in Boston, successfully lobbied Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force to include a number of items from its legislative wish list in the Bush administration’s energy plan, including new EPA regulations essentially exempting coal-burning utilities from installing pollution-control devices when making upgrades. Not knowing who will be in the White House in 2005, it is here covering its bets, like other big givers to both the Democratic and Republican conventions, including IBM, AT&T;, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Altria Group.

In a pay-to-play political system, Americans’ votes don’t matter nearly as much as cold, hard cash. That’s why we need comprehensive campaign finance reform, including full public financing, to actually change the rules of the game. Under such “clean elections” systems, which are already the law in Arizona and Maine, candidates who collect a large number of small contributions and agree to abide by spending limits receive a public grant to run their campaigns. In that way, public officials are freed from their direct dependence on private donors.

If somebody is going to own the politicians, it might as well be us.