A small step away from the wrong path

by DG Martin

Will North Carolina’s new lobbying and ethics law eliminate political fundraising scandals?

The new law makes important changes, including prohibiting lobbyists from making campaign contributions to legislative candidates. It forbids lobbyists from gathering campaign checks from others and “bundling” them to give to candidates. The new law also bans most lobbyists’ gifts to legislators and other state government officials.

So, will these new rules eliminate scandals?

It is a positive step, but the new law will not stop politicians from raising campaign funds from people and organizations who want some kind of help from their government.

Lobbyists will find ways that will be legal under the new law for their clients to get money to the political campaign chests of the politicians who help them – or might help them.

Compared to the multi-million dollars involved in “Abramoff-DeLay” scandals at the federal level, the recent North Carolina political fundraising stories seem small potatoes – at least in financial terms.

Democrats point out that the fundraising mess in Washington is a Republican responsibility. Republicans say that the Raleigh mess belongs to the Democrats.

Each party wants to use the other party’s scandals to gain an advantage in this fall’s elections. The Democrats want to use the Washington mess to help take back control of the US Congress. The Republicans hope they can use public concern about political fundraising in Raleigh to gain control of the North Carolina legislature.

Most voters, even if they are concerned about lobbying and fundraising, are confused about which political party to blame for scandals. Many just blame “the politicians” of both major parties.

There is a problem for those of us who would like to blame only the Republicans for the Washington political corruption represented by Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay.

When the Democrats were in charge of the Congress, they learned to use their ability to give access and favorable government treatment as a political fundraising tool. Using their position of power, they were able to raise big money even from Republicans who wanted access and favors.

When Republicans took control of Congress, they took the Democrats’ fundraising programs and “improved” their effectiveness, using them, as the Democrats before them, to protect and solidify their majority status.

Without question, Abramoff, DeLay, and hundreds of their allies refined and expanded a system in which political contributions buy access to political decision-makers. It is the kind of access that leads to favorable tax treatment, government licenses and permissions, and government contracts.

It is a mutually beneficial arrangement for the players. First, it is great for those who are rich enough to give substantial political money to support those in power in return for the kind of government action that makes them even richer. Second, it is great for the elected officials who have the power to influence government action that can help those who help with the elected officials’ desperate and growing need for political cash to keep themselves in power.

It is not necessarily great for the rest of us. When our elected representatives are looking out for the people who provide their campaign funds, they cannot pay full attention to the best interests and needs of the country as a whole.

The new North Carolina legislation might not cure the political fundraising problem. But we can hope it will help us take a step away from a pathway towards an Abramoff-DeLay political culture.

Just to be fair, let’s listen to what a Washington Republican leader might tell a loyal Republican who complains about corrupt fundraising (and what a Raleigh Democratic leader would say to a Democratic complainer):

“If you want our party to stay in power, we have to raise a lot of money to fund the campaigns to win enough elections to keep control of Congress. If our party loses control, the other party will take over and that will be a disaster. Maybe our fundraising is not pretty. But unless you want the other party in charge of the government, you should be thanking us for doing the ‘dirty work’ necessary for us to keep doing the good things you want us to do.”