The bribery allegations against California state Sen. Leland Yee expose the folly of the U.S. Supreme Court’s logic in its April 2 decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, which struck down restrictions on the amount of money individuals may donate to federal campaigns in an election cycle.
The only legitimate reason to set limits on funding politicians’ campaigns, according to the court’s majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, is explicit trades of campaign dollars for action — quid pro quo corruption. The court pointedly dismissed “the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials” as a reason to limit campaign donations.
The way our broken political system works, though, is that the chief place to raise money for campaigns is from industries and interest groups that want something from government. Influence is purchased all the time, whether in explicit quid pro quo trades or not, and such influence peddling just as bad for democracy as bribery. The real scandal in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., is not the occasional lawbreaking; it’s what’s legal.
According to the indictment, Yee allegedly received $10,000 from a campaign contributor and then wrote a letter in support of that contributor’s software firm. In addition, Yee allegedly made this trade on tape with an undercover FBI agent. (He has also been indicted for gun trafficking, which is not relevant to this discussion.) But imagine you’re state Sen. Jane Doe and you accept a $10,000 campaign contribution at a fundraiser and then a week later that contributor says to you, “By the way, my company could really use a letter of support, if you feel like it.” You say, “I’ll see what I can do,” and then you write the letter. Your behavior would be perfectly legal.
What’s the difference? For Yee, who was allegedly indiscreet enough to make such a deal explicit and to be caught on tape by the FBI, plenty. But for the rest of us citizens who must live under the distorted decisions of politicians continually focused on raising the campaign funds they need for re-election, it is a distinction without a difference.
Reading the FBI complaint against Yee on this bribery allegation, I was struck by how his discussions with the undercover FBI agent disguised as a campaign contributor were so similar to other lawmakers’ routine campaign fundraising. The usual fundraising and lawmaking that goes on in Sacramento and Washington is legalized bribery.
It costs $1 million, on average, to win a state senate campaign. That means raising about $10,000 a week for two years. How can any candidate raise that much money?
Simple: There’s an unlimited supply of campaign funds available from the people, companies and interests that want something from government. That’s where Yee’s money — and most of the money for political campaigns — comes from.
MapLight, the nonprofit I head that studies money in politics, researched campaign contributions to Yee, going back several years. Some of the people mentioned in the indictment have given him campaign contributions. But overall, his campaign contribution pattern is similar to many other California Democratic legislators’. For example, unions are among his top contributors; he received money from Time Warner and other companies too.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In Arizona and a half-dozen other states, laws creating public funding of elections let candidates run for office and win without dependence on big campaign donors. Former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano was the first governor in U.S. history elected without private money. She quickly created a prescription-drug discount program for Arizona citizens and said that she couldn’t have done this if she had taken pharmaceutical firm campaign money.
The Yee affair is the third scandal to hit California’s state legislature in the past six months. These stories further erode the trust people have placed in our political institutions and the well-meaning public servants who have become tainted by these scandals. Lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington understandably don't want the public to distrust them all equally.
But dismissing the accused as just a few bad apples hardly does justice to the situation. It’s our broken money-based political system that elects legislators who are forced to spend most of their time on transactions with special interests for campaign donations rather than on legislating for the common good. The system forces politicians to compete for money and attracts lawmakers who are good at trading money for influence. Instead of electing the best leaders, we elect the best fundraisers.
If lawmakers from Sacramento to Capitol Hill want to change the public’s perception of them, they must stand up and say, “We are going to reform the system that makes people dependent upon relentless fundraising to get elected.” Legalized bribery is bribery all the same.