Opening the 2012 conversation about money in politics

“Every potentially vulnerable member of Congress is worried about a late-breaking, enormously-expensive attack campaign used against them.” — Norm Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute, during an interview for the radio program “This American Life.”

On Oct. 6 of last year, before Democratic U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks of Belfair announced he was retiring , if you were in Washington, D.C. and on the right mailing list you could have attended a breakfast honoring Dicks.

The event was hosted in the building occupied by the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons by that organization’s political action committee, The Orthopaedic PAC, and you could have had a seat for somewhere between $500 and $5,000.

The PAC, according to the invitation it sent, works to “enhance access and improve the quality of orthopaedic care for patients across the U.S. We support improved patient car and are staunch advocates for increased funding for medical research, better Medicare reimbursement rates and medical liability reform.”

You can see this and other invitations at the site hosted by the Sunlight Foundation. As the organization’s name implies, the Sunlight Foundation seeks to shed light on the relationship between politics and money.

In the first quarter of this year the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons spent $507,846 lobbying members of Congress over a number of health care issues, including preventing direct access to physical therapists to avoid what it calls “unnecessary and overuse of therapy services.”

This is all spelled out in a form the organization was required to present to Congress and made available by another political money watchdog, the Center for Responsive Politics on its site

What I can’t tell you are the specific arguments the orthopaedic surgeons made or whether those arguments are right or wrong. I also don’t know if they visited Dicks specifically. The organization had already given him $5,000 toward what would have been his 2012 campaign. The organization gives to a lot of candidates from both parties, according to its filings with the Federal Elections Commission.

There is no particular scandal here, unless you consider the standard operating procedure a scandal.

While some may consider Dicks’ retirement a lost opportunity to examine money in politics, in another sense it makes it all the more important.

That’s why I took note when Bill Driscoll, the Republican candidate who announced his candidacy this week, called out Democrat Derek Kilmer’s “special interest” money, after I had spent a fair portion of an earlier story showing that the money Kilmer raised in the first six weeks of his candidacy came largely from individual donations, many from his friends.

That doesn’t mean there was no special interest money. There was a single $1,000 donation from Keycorp Advocates Fund, the PAC that represents Keycorp. That organization distributes much less than the surgeons, with more of the donations going to Republicans than Democrats.

According to Keycorp’s lobbyist filing, it spent $152,250 in the first quarter of this year lobbying members of Congress on implementation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, on regional banking issues and the Volcker Rule, an attempt to reduce some of Wall Street’s risky trading.

We are early in the campaign season and the real fun is unlikely to play out until late September and early October. If the race is close at all around then, we could see a quick influx of outside money from Super PACs, the offspring of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which undid some of the limits in campaign finance law and received a lot of attention in the Republican presidential primaries of late.

Those same PACs could and do go after congressional races, too, which explains the Norm Ornstein quote at the top of this entry. Imagine a close congressional race and big money flooding into an area to buy up television ads late in the election process. In the “This American Life” piece referenced above, there’s an example of just that.

Much of my own appreciation for the importance of following the money came from a rare opportunity I was fortunate enough to take part in a couple of weeks ago.

The Robert R. McCormick Foundation sponsored a seminar in Washington, D.C. on investigating Super PACs. I was able to attend, thanks to a grant from the foundation.

The Sunlight Foundation hosted the event and offered presentations on how to make discoveries that are not readily available, how to examine the documents that are and how to ferret out what political organizations get in return for their campaign generosity.

Getting that information is not always inherently easy, because key people don’t want it to be. There are enough bread crumbs out there, however, both in official and unofficial forms, that someone paying attention can use to be a well-informed voter.

3 thoughts on “Opening the 2012 conversation about money in politics

  1. A new book by Goldberg takes these kinds of cliches to task . Special Interest money claims by Driscoll, The book is haeavily aimed at the the way the left does this , but does also offer some examples of the way the right does it also .

    Certain cliches have proved to be effective in politics, and politicians use them for gain regardless of merit . Thanks Steve for taking the time to look into these things . Hope one day you can land a job in a jounalistic occupation that allows you more time to do this kind of research . Its really the job of the media to keep these guys honest and its our job to take the time to read about it . .

  2. Speaking of money and the admonition: “Follow the money.” Appointed State Rep Hanson had over $100K deposited to his campaign account just before he was appointed by Kitsap Dem Commissioners. I find it curious that the who’s who of out-of-state lawyers were so friendly to Appointed Hanson. The Expose: Hanson – Follow the Money is in production and will be updated through the election campaign. Steve, is LA money local money? Google Search “Rolfes Expose Follow the Money” to see how the Dem money game works.

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