Did you hear about the member of Congress who recently spent thousands of dollars in public money for his private use? Yawn.
Illegal spending of public or campaign money is hardly news, except this embezzlement story has a new and colorful twist to it. Congressmember Aaron Shock (R - IL) admitted using public money to decorate his office in a Downton Abbey theme. Can you imagine how his office would look if he were a fan of Game of Thrones?
But last week, Shock, 34 and a rising star in Congress, resigned his office. Numerous investigative reports revealed that not only had he redecorated his office but also spent thousands of dollars of public funds and campaign money on lavish hotels and chartered planes.
Shock’s most creative financial scam occurred when he requested public reimbursement for the over 123,000 miles he said he had driven on his personal vehicle. He also invoiced another 49,000 miles to his political action committee, for a total of approximately 172,000 miles.
But when Shock sold his car in 2014, it only had 81,860 miles on the odometer. Not quite the 172,000 miles he had been reimbursed for either by the government or his campaign committee. Bad at math or a thief?
While former rep. Shock’s greed and redecorating choices made for interesting reading, they pale in comparison to what other politicians have stolen from the public trough over the years.
I’ve been following money in politics for over 25 years, first as a writer, then as the Ethics Director of Los Angeles and the State of Connecticut. The activities of rep. Shock are in many respects small potatoes to what has become the selling of the United States government.
We have, for the most part, the best congressperson, senator, governor, and president that money can buy. If you want something done in a state legislature or Congress, show them the money.
I believe the most insidious threat to our democracy in the long run is the billions of campaign dollars spent to buy politicians.
Ideologies — judgments on issues from foreign affairs to pipelines, race, and class — affect political decisions at all levels. But these considerations pale in comparison to the corrosive power of large contributions to politicians.
Who buys the politicians? According to one of the most well-respected organizations dealing with politics and money, the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), only a small number of Americans make significant contributions to politicians.
CRP noted on its website, OpenSecrets.org, that only 0.23 percent of the adult U.S. population gave more than $200 to federal political candidates, parties, or PACs in the last election cycle. To put it another way, 66.6 percent of the billions of campaign contributions made came from only 0.23 percent of the population. But, as CRP points out, “The impact of those donations, however, is huge.”
You bet it is. For the 2013-2014 election cycle, CRP listed the groups that donated large sums of money either through their employees and/or their political action committees: (partial list)
Finance/insurance/Real Estate: $498,855,886
Ideology/Single issue: $345,425,610
Lawyers &Lobbyists: $147,603,009
These numbers just represent campaign money openly given and not hidden from public view. But there is a great deal of campaign money that is hidden. This in part is because of the recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizen United and other court rulings. This money is frequently referred to as “dark money” and threatens to dwarf the known sources of campaign contributions.
The so-called “dark money” has increased from less than $5.2 million in 2006 to over $300 million in the 2012 election, according to CRP.
And of course, there are the billionaires on the right, middle, and left who have sent, or are planning to send, hundreds of millions of dollars to candidates through various other fundraising groups.
So what can be done to stop the rapid erosion of our participatory democracy? The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU offers the following suggestions:
• Advance a new system of small-donor financing by using matching public funds for federal and state elections.
• Pass new campaign finance laws and defend in court the few that are still left in place.
• Overturn Citizens United and other such cases so that the laws of the land support participation in the electoral process.
It’s important to remember that no one political party or interest is solely responsible for the escalating money wars. All of them remind me of the large green plant in the Little Shop of Horrors, which insanely demanded to be fed more and more blood to grow.
Except, in this case, it’s not real blood the politicians want but the lifeblood of politics — money.
Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.