The issue of pay-to-play, the term used to describe the act of exchanging political donations for government influence, is one that plagues and undermines the very bedrock of any democracy. The idea that those with big money, whether they are individuals, corporations, or special interest groups, have near-complete control over political elections at both the state and federal level is well-founded.
Lobbyists and the groups they are paid to represent serve as the typification of a more widespread conflict of interest within the American system of governance. The reality that a lobbyist can make a very comfortable living by proving themselves effective at attaining preferential influence from the U.S government is a problem. More concerning is the reality that, of the estimated 80,000 lobbyists who do their work in Washington, ‘more than two hundred lobbyists are former members of Congress. Others have worked for congressional committees or the agencies they now lobby.' There is an insular, wink-and-nod relationship between the most effective lobbyists and members of government; you pass or block a piece of legislation in our favor, and we’ll scratch yours. Any honest person will admit that money and self-interest, for the overwhelming majority of human beings, trump the value of a political promise.
Direct democracy, in which the people nominate and elect candidates professing to represent their interests, has been replaced by a system in which the candidate with the most financial backing typically wins. And when they win, they are bound to the wishes of the special interests who funded their victorious campaign. There are exceptions, but without significant financial backing to reach the masses through advertisements, media coverage, and the ability to fund an effective campaign, a candidate has little shot of being elected to any political office. This may sound like a cliche-addled ramblings of a disillusioned tree hugger, but the evidence is there.
A 2014 study from Cambridge University, one of the first that purports to measure the influence of four defined groups on U.S. government policy, reached the ultimate conclusion that the masses have virtually no control over the policies and laws the rule the land. According to the study’s authors, ‘Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.’
The results of this study are no surprise. Countless Americans have seen candidate after candidate promise one thing and do another, election cycle after election cycle. More than his unabashed, America-first stances, Donald Trump’s financial independence is the reason he was seen by so many Average Joes as the last hope to be the human wrecking ball aimed at leveling a broken system of governance. The Koch brothers, the most prominent, vilified political mega-donors in the U.S., have never backed a Democrat. Every year, the Republican nominee is almost certain to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in Koch-backed support.
But in 2016, the Koch brothers backed seemingly every Republican candidate except the one that eventually won. This re-affirmed to his supporters that Trump was the first Presidential candidate in their lifetime who would not be beholden to special interests and mega-donors whose campaign funds would be re-paid in the form of political influence. Making those voters' decision even easier, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate and her blatantly anti-Democracy ‘Foundation’ is the face of shady donations from even shadier donors. It could be argued that while the GOP's embrace of legal pay-to-play systems, recent iterations of the DNC have embraced illegal ones.
Several high-profile stories have again brought the extremity of pay-to-play politics to light. The Podesta Group, headed by much-maligned brothers John and Tony, has been a force behind Democratic campaign donations. Since 2008, their group has provided upwards of $15 million annually to the Democratic Party, with donations in certain years approaching $30 million. And that's just what's on the books. John served as chief of staff for Bill Clinton, ‘counselor’ to Barack Obama, and head of the 2016 Clinton presidential campaign. The Podestas and their firm are inextricably linked with the Democratic Party, with Tony seemingly handling the financial side while John handles the political stratagem. In the case of the Podestas, the mega donor is the chief of staff. If you donate to the Podesta Group, and their candidate gets in office, you’re damn sure to have some serious clout. Yet, John expects the public to believe that he had no knowledge of the Clinton campaign’s payment of Fusion GPS for dirt on then-candidate Donald Trump. He was head strategist, and he was putting that donor money to work.
‘A report from last week confirmed that Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid $12.4 million to the Perkins Coie law firm. Obama for America gave $972,000. Perkins Coie funded the dossier, but press reports from the beginning have said the anti-Trump project was originally funded by Republican groups, although they have not been named.’ (Washington Examiner)
In the face of mounting evidence that it was the Democrats, not Donald Trump, who were in bed with the Kremlin in several instances, from uranium sales to dirt-digging dossiers, the Podesta Group has come under further scrutiny. Tony, head of the Group, resigned on the same day that the Paul Manafort indicted by Robert Mueller, fueling the suspicions of those who believe Mueller is little more than an arm of Clinton and the DNC.
‘Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta and the Podesta Group, his powerful Washington firm, are now caught up in a federal criminal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. They may have violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act by failing to properly disclose work completed on behalf of a pro-Vladimir Putin Ukrainian think tank to the Justice Department.
Sources who spoke with NBC said the Podesta group became of significant interest because it may have violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act. FARA states Americans who lobby for foreign governments, leaders, or political parties must disclose their activities with the Justice Department.’ (Examiner)
As stated, the Podesta brothers’ reach has, and could have been again, perforated the walls of the Oval Office. They are far from mere ‘lobbyists’, and now it has been exposed that Tony did not disclose at least one instance of work done behalf of the Russian government. John, naturally, denies any knowledge of such dealings. This is likely only the tip of the spear with respect to the Podesta Group’s donation-related indiscretions, and it shows just how ingrained the pay-to-play model has become within American politics. The practice goes both ways, but this case is unprecedented in its direct links from foreign agents to the campaign of a candidate who was once considered a presidential favorite.
Another recent story about campaign donation misconduct involves New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. Even if convicted Ponzi scheme recruiter Jona Rechnitz is aggrandizing allegations against the sitting mayor and former Clinton campaign manager, it’s been confirmed that de Blasio did in fact receive the donations that Rechnitz details. Rechnitz is the ‘star witness’ in the trial of Norman Seabrook, former city corrections union chief accused of accepting bribes in exchange for Seabrook investing union pension funds into private hedge funds. But Seabrook quickly became a footnote once Rechnitz began talking, with the focus quickly shifting from Seabrook to the mayor, a much bigger fish.
After allegedly telling de Blasio fundraiser Ross Offinger that, “we’re going to become significant contributors, but we want access,” Rechnitz soon received direct ‘access’ to the mayor.
‘The pair [Rechnitz and de Blasio] then began chatting “at least” once a week about “different issues in the city” as Rechnitz funneled about $160,000 to de Blasio’s campaign and pet political projects, said the government witness.
The pair’s discussions included “if he wins, who he should be appointing for certain positions,” Rechnitz said of the mayor.
“I was focused on making money, getting my name out there, becoming a big player in town. So I figured maybe I’ll buy an office building, and I’ll get the city as a tenant. Maybe I’ll need to get special permits to make residential developments.”’ (NY Post via court documents)
Rechnitz described a conversation he and two business associates had with de Blasio’s head of fundraising.
‘“We’re one group and we expect a lot of access and influence in the office,” Rechnitz said the group told Offinger. “And when we call, we want answers. When we reach out for things, we want them to get done.”
“What was Mr. Offinger’s response?” prosecutor Martin Bell asked.
“’OK. How much do you think you guys can get together?’” Rechnitz said Offinger replied. “And I had committed at that point, I think I said about $50,000 to $100,000.’’’ (Post)
In total, Rechnitz alone donated more than $160,000 to de Blasio’s nonprofit, mayoral campaign, and a push for Democratic control of the New York Senate. That meant using ‘straw donors’, another illegal element within a greater system of illegal fundraising.
‘“A couple of people in my office, I had them write checks, because I wasn’t allowed to give more than $4,950. And I reimbursed them for those donations,’’ Rechnitz said.
Rechnitz said he promised Offinger to hit target donations — and the fundraiser would stop by his office to check on the fundraising.
“I had a lot of pressure from him to bring that amount in,” Rechnitz said of the pledged amount.’
A 2013 federal investigation into de Blasio was closed, without de Blasio having ever been cleared. If that doesn’t make much sense, consider the sitting president, his Secretary of State, and her connections to de Blasio. To deny that such connections had anything to do with de Blasio being let off the hook is to reject the obvious.
According to de Blasio’s spokesman Eric Phillips, it’s all complete and utter fairytale, “reheated, repackaged accusations” from which nothing is to come. Based on the extent of corruption within the American political system, especially in large, Democratically controlled metropoli like New York, it’s likely nothing will come of Rechnitz’s allegations. But for those who have long been aware of and frustrated with pay-to-play’s prevalence within and control over American politics, these details matter. And, even if they don’t lead to any indictment, it gives us more information on what we already know: the American political system is rigged, and it’s not by the people, or for the people.