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The Price of Power: Congressional Leadership Positions for Sale to the Highest Bidder

Uniquely among legislatures in the developed world, our Congressional parties now post prices for key slots on committees. You want it — you buy it.
 
 
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The following piece appears in the current issue of the Washington Spectator. For more great stories, check out their site. 

 

 Under the new rules for the 2008 election cycle, the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee]  asked rank-and-file members to contribute $125,000 in dues and to raise an additional $75,000 for the party. Subcommittee chairpersons must contribute $150,000 in dues and raise an additional $100,000. Members who sit on the most powerful committees … must contribute $200,000 and raise an additional $250,000. Subcommittee chairs on power committees and committee chairs of non-power committees must contribute $250,000 and raise $250,000. The five chairs of the power committees must contribute $500,000 and raise an additional $1 million. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn, and Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel must contribute $800,000 and raise $2.5 million. The four Democrats who serve as part of the extended leadership must contribute $450,000 and raise $500,000, and the nine Chief Deputy Whips must contribute $300,000 and raise $500,000. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must contribute a staggering $800,000 and raise an additional $25 million. 

—Marian Currinder, Money in the House (2008)

THE YEAR IS 1909. The U.S. income distribution is about as lopsided as it is today. J. P. Morgan is fine-tuning a tariff bill by telegraph from his yacht. Morgan and his fellow robber barons have for years reliably tied Congress up in knots whenever anyone proposes regulating trusts, railroad rates, financial speculation, or labor disputes. A notoriously corrupt ring of U.S. senators, the so-called "Millionaires Club," is on hand to bury in committee any measures that the corporate titans frown upon.

Fast-forward to 2011. Being a millionaire in Congress is nothing special — just about half of all members are one. The legislative process works less operatically, but the result is pretty much the same: legislative gridlock punctuated by occasional blatant special-interest legislation. Banks are rescued; the unemployed are left to their own devices. The housing market is left in free fall, with the bailed-out banks mostly still left to call the tune on foreclosures.

As national income stagnates, financiers submerge financial reforms and derivatives regulation under waves of campaign contributions. Meanwhile, a vast array of interested firms and investors dispatch armies of lobbyists to stymie Congressional action on climate change, block the government from bargaining down prices of drugs paid for by federal health programs, and keep tax increases forever off the national agenda.

We watch the news to see if Congressional stalemates over deficits will lead to a government default that would throw world financial markets into turmoil or force draconian, across-the-board budget cuts at Thanksgiving time. But while we hold our breath, popular discussions about Congress have taken a curious turn. Pundits talk nostalgically about the good old days, when representatives from the two parties regularly played golf together and compromised their differences in the name of the larger national interest. Today such outcomes are said to be impossible. But why, exactly?

The rivers of political money that now swirl 24/7 around Capitol Hill surely play a role in producing the great D.C. stalemate machine. But tired recitations of astronomical campaign-finance spending totals don't tell the full story. Neither does the observation that since the 1990s, Republican leaders both in Congress and out have raised enormous amounts of money from investor blocs that plainly hope to roll back the New Deal as a whole. We need to look at the bigger picture. The tidal wave of cash has structurally transformed Congress. It swept away the old seniority system that used to govern leadership selection and committee assignments in Congress. In its place, the parties copied practices of big-box retailers like Walmart, Best Buy, or Target.

 
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