Tom Ferguson on Money in Politics: "Everything is for sale."
“Look, everything is for sale, that’s the logic of the new Congress there. Since the ‘90s, everything’s auctioned, and that’s what the bulk of the population doesn’t understand this. The insiders know it but everybody else is still in the dark,” says Tom Ferguson, Professor of Political Science at UMass-Boston, in a recent interview on Radio Free Dylan.
“There was some columnist [in The New York Times] who interviewed an ex-Congressman about what was going wrong in Congress. And finally the guy mentions towards the end, ‘Oh, yes, there’s this terrible money problem.’ You know, look, that’s the problem. You’re selling everything,” says Ferguson.
It’s obvious that the piles of seemingly unlimited cash flowing into Washington on a daily basis have made money the central factor in lawmaking. Not so obvious, though, are the damaging effects money has had on the structure of leadership and balance of power within our Congress.
Massive amounts of money, says Ferguson, has shifted power disproportionately to the national party campaign committees and to top congressional leadership, damaging the autonomy of individual representatives. This, he says, has been a key factor in how Washington has “structurally transformed Congress, sweeping away the old seniority system that governed leadership selection and committee assignments.”
In place of the old system, says Ferguson, Congress now uses a system of “posted prices” for selecting who serves on committees and assumes leadership positions — and members who want money from top leadership and support from their national party have to do one thing: play by the rules. This leads to almost a “big box retail”-type mentality within the political system, with decisions being made at the home office and dictated from the top down.
As he explains in a recent piece in the Financial Times:
Uniquely among legislatures in the developed world, US congressional parties now post prices for key slots in the lawmaking process. As Marian Currinder revealed in her book Money in the House, the Democratic congressional campaign following the 2008 cycle asked members “to contribute $125,000 in dues and to raise an additional $75,000 for the party”. Senior politicians with committee places were expected to raise more – in some cases $500,000. Roughly the same expectation of money raising occurs on the other side too – but unlike most retailers, though, there are never any sales. Prices only drift up over time.
The practice makes cash flow the basic determinant of the very structure of lawmaking. Instead of possibly buffering Congress from at least some outside forces, committees and leadership posts reflect the shape of political money. Outside investors and interest groups become decisive in resolving leadership struggles within the parties.”
With centralized money, he explains, comes centralized power and decision making, and pressure to toe the party line. ”The leaders’ control of these committees, along with the vast fixed investments in research, polling, and media capabilities these committees maintain, gives them more leverage over individual Congressmen and women. It makes crossing party lines far more costly than, for example, in the 1950′s,” explains Ferguson. When it comes to how members of Congress have to behave to game the system, ”You can imagine them all just sort of bringing tribute to the idols, and the idols are the leadership. And so they heap up this stuff in order to get ahead in the institution,” says Ferguson.
He says the media needs to do a better job covering money in politics. ”When you have a kind of political language here that’s utterly contrived and utterly devoid of reality, but that’s the stuff in which people have to try to think through their theories of politics. And the biggest failure in the American media right now is the inability to lead money in politics together into a narrative that makes sense or has any contact with reality,” explains Ferguson.
“You probably can’t fix much in the United States if you’re going to allow the policy to just continue to be sold in every dimension. The Congress of our new gilded age is far from the best Congress money can buy; it may well be the worst,” says Ferguson.