Special-interest money and politics: the American way

Capitol Journal

Sometimes an old movie line says it best. Such a line came to mind when I read the Assembly speaker’s assertion that political money doesn’t influence legislative voting.

“I know people love to try to create that impression,” Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) was quoted as saying in a Times article Sunday about AT&T’s wide-ranging lobbying operation.

“But the reality is, that’s not the way things happen. People give money because of whatever reasons motivate them, and we evaluate legislation regardless. I know that that’s a hard concept for some people…. I cannot think of anything they’ve asked me to do.”

“Whatever reasons motivate them”? They’re motivated by sound investment practices. That’s what corporations do. And it pays off, or they wouldn’t continue to invest. In this case, they’re laying money on legislators who make policy decisions that affect the corporation’s bottom line.

The American way — like it or not, and most moneyed special interests do like it.

Reading Pérez’s quote, I was immediately reminded of what Michael Corleone told soon-to-be-snuffed brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi in “The Godfather.” He said:

“Only don’t tell me that you’re innocent. Because it insults my intelligence and makes me very angry.”

My intelligence is insulted — and so is the public’s — whenever a politician claims that political money does not influence politics. Specifically, that it doesn’t sway the public policy decisions of legislators. Or bill signings of a governor.

Democrat or Republican. It’s just human nature.

That’s why the non-donating aged, blind and disabled — the welfare moms and college kids — draw the short straw at budget time. And it’s why the generous public employee unions and corporate interests make out. Contributors usually cash in.

AT&T most often gets its way, as reported in the Times article by Anthony York and Shane Goldmacher.

They wrote that the telecommunications giant hands out, on average, more than $1 million in political contributions each year. Every current member of the Legislature — Democrat or Republican — has received at least $1,000. Chairmen of committees that handle legislation directly affecting the industry receive far more.

“When AT&T gives to every single legislator — liberal and conservative — then you know there’s a problem,” says campaign finance expert Robert Stern, who helped write California’s political reform act in 1974.

You know that AT&T is not handing out money based on a legislator’s ideology, but on his potential for pliability and casting a friendly vote in the Capitol.

But perhaps we should grant Pérez the benefit of doubt. He might actually believe that political money is benign. Conceivably he’s in denial.

“I’m sure Pérez believes that,” says longtime lobbyist George Steffes, whose first Capitol gig was as Gov. Ronald Reagan’s legislative liaison. “He has to believe it for his own good. A legislator who isn’t saying to himself, ‘OK, I’m a crook,’ has to say, ‘It doesn’t affect me.’ Otherwise, he probably couldn’t sleep at night.”

I called Steffes because he’s one of the most respected lobbyists in Sacramento and he’s an avid golfer. He has lobbied for several golf organizations “as a labor of love.”

The centerpiece of AT&T’s lobbying strategy, the Times article noted, is the annual Speaker’s Cup at the world class Pebble Beach golf course on the Monterey Peninsula, where green fees are $495 and an ocean-view room goes for $995. Lawmakers and lobbyists golf, schmooze and typically raise more than $1 million for Democrats.

Tickets average more than $12,000 per person. Goody bags last year included a new iPad. AT&T spent more than $225,000 on the two-day event, the crown jewel of political fundraising in California.

I wanted to know what Steffes the golf addict thought of the tournament.

“I’ve never gone to it,” he said. “I won’t go. It’s another example of something that’s overdone. I think it’s in excess. It’s ridiculous to pay that kind of money…. The level of gifts they give people might be enough to cost everyone their amateur status….

“My personal opinion about the level of things [ATT officials] do is that they’re approaching the rental of government.”

I’ve always considered golf tournaments a great opportunity to socialize and practice civility while playing a terrific sport in a beautifully landscaped park.

“What Pérez could do is put on the golf tournament himself and not be beholden,” Steffes said.

What are other remedies for the stifling influence of special interests on the Legislature?

“There’s no way to prevent it, but there’s a way to reduce it,” Stern says.

You could ban corporate and labor contributions. But that would just expand unaccountable independent expenditure committees, the super-PACs.

You could ban all gifts, period. The limit now is $420. That would eliminate freebies such as Pebble Beach green fees and many travel junkets.

You could adopt public financing of state campaigns — with the public buying the politicians instead of the special interests. But voters don’t want that, and Supreme Court rulings have reduced its potential effectiveness.

State Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) has long been an advocate of public financing. She’s a realist about money and politics.

“Most legislators are middle-class people,” Hancock says. “We can’t afford the $700,000 it takes to run a competitive election in a California legislative district. Therefore, unless people want only independently wealthy candidates, they’ll get candidates who take money from interest groups with legislation pending in the Legislature.

“Their influence is substantial.

“One legislator told me once that we all start out so idealistic, then come under all these pressures and after a while you ease on over to where the money is.”

Thanks, senator, for not insulting our intelligence.