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Dollar Democracy: Corporate America Buys the Midterms

Is America's government now officially for sale?

When Sharron Angle, erstwhile Senate campaigner for Nevada, told the national media in her concession speech that 80% of her campaign funds came from outside her state, she not only put her foot in her mouth again, but confirmed a level of manipulation by Washington lobbyists that raises extremely troubling questions. Just how much are special interest groups bankrolling our political representatives and buying our government?

Angle's 80% (comprising a total of $81.6 million) is in fact part of a disturbing trend across the country. Of the $700 million that U.S. House members raised in three years, MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan reports, "79% came from outside their district." He was relaying the findings of a critical new documentary by Francis Megahy called The Best Government Money Can Buy. As Megahy aptly noted on Ratigan's show, "When you've cast your vote at an election, you don't necessarily get what you want. You get what your candidate's biggest campaign contributors want."

That would seem especially meaningful when the midterms were "the most expensive midterm elections ever." They also included the highest proportion of negative ads in a U.S. election—so far.

The ousting of Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), three-term senator and strong proponent of campaign-finance reform, therefore needs to be seen against the backdrop of his opponent, millionaire plastics CEO Ron Johnson, outspending him four-to-one, including by "chipp[ing] in $8.2 million of his own fortune for his campaign." Common Cause of Wisconsin estimates that "outside groups spent about $5 million, most of that on ads opposing Feingold."

After the U.S. Supreme Court "gutted the McCain-Feingold Act" earlier this year, ruling 5-4 that any blocks on campaign financing would be an infringement of "the exercise of free speech," the Court made it possible for deep-pocketed lobbyists such as American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to "sponsor" dozens of campaigns without any public accountability. You can follow some of the unlimited money here.

At the above link, we learn that American Crossroads spent $21.5 million during the midterms, including $203,268.89 to oust Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas); $1.2 million to oppose Harry Reid; and almost the exact same amount to stop Alexi Giannoulias from winning Obama's previous Senate seat in Illinois.

The lobbyists' largest contribution—$5,116,032.07—went to opposing Michael F. Bennet's campaign to remain one of Colorado's Democratic senators. (A sizable chunk of that $5 million was paid for by lobbyists McCarthy Marcus Hennings Ltd., whose website currently brags, "MMH played a big part in the re-election of two United States Senators in the 2008 elections," including in Maine and for Republican Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell.)

But as much as this sponsorship and bankrolling impacts the country's political process at election time, it also strongly affects future Congressional policies, including about Bush's tax cuts for the ultra wealthy and GOP statements about tackling the deficit.

The GOP's statements of concern about the deficit collide, for instance, with its complete indifference to the amount of external funding that has been paid to support both its candidates and to oppose Democrats. That discrepancy is especially glaring when one factors in Rand Paul's election-night interview to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, when Paul, apparently in earnest, told the people that had voted for him that distinctions between the rich and poor are no longer meaningful. "There are no rich, there are no middle class, there are no poor; we all are interconnected," Paul asserted. "We all either work for rich people or we sell stuff to rich people." "We all," unfortunately, includes the newly elected senator, as well as a veritable phalanx of similarly positioned colleagues in Congress.

Irony of ironies: These are, in many cases, the very same newly elected members of Congress that have voiced such radical sentiments as wanting not only to cut the Federal Education budget, but actually to eliminate that budget entirely. So the funding for schools presumably can swell the hundreds of millions of dollars that CEOs already pay themselves.

"People were not punished for being big-spending Republicans," Rachel Maddow rightly pointed out on MSNBC on election night. "People who [had] records of being big-spending Republicans won their races. So whatever the Tea Party stands for, it doesn't have anything to do with spending." Except, presumably, when it's their own fortune—or that of their lobbyists.

The same corporations spent $2.61 billion last year floating contributions through 12,488 lobbyists, with a view to influencing 535 lawmakers. That's a ratio of 23:1. Which leads us to ask: Does our government actually run this country or is it, in the words of MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan, "something closer to a bought service-provider"?

In Britain's Independent newspaper, columnist Johann Hari comes to a similar conclusion: "America is now officially for sale." "The laws and policies of the legislature of the United States of America are now," he states, "effectively on e-Bay, for sale to the highest bidder."

If the Tea Partiers really want transparency in government, perhaps they'll work with President Obama to appeal the Supreme Court's ruling against impediments to campaign contributions, including by ultra-wealthy lobbyists. Sorry, a poor joke—gallows humor. As our new senator-elect from Kentucky put it so accurately, "We all either work for rich people or we sell stuff to rich people."

So, good luck getting the GOP-controlled House to represent any other interests and concerns. Follow me on Twitter @christophlane

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