Thursday, December 20, 2007

McCain vs. Drudge and the NYT

(via memeorandum)

Drudge broke a story this morning suggesting that the NYT is debating the time at which it releases a story suggesting McCain performed legislative favors for a telecom lobbyist. This would obviously be embarassing for a man who has spent the last 20 years railing repeatedly against the "special interests."

While there is a certain amount of schadenfreude inherent in watching the man who championed the odious BCRA get taken down for ties to special interests, there are a lot of problems with this story, both as it is currently being reported and as an example of the flaws in our perception of lobbying and so-called "special interests."

1. McCain is fighting the release of the story extremely hard, as is the lobbyist herself, with each having retained lawyers to fight on their behalf. That they are preparing for such a hard fight over the story suggests (in my opinion) a sincere belief that they did nothing wrong and that the story is of dubious merit. The fact that the Times is withholding the story at the same time as it has done similarly negative stories about Obama and Clinton also suggests that there may be some factual problems with the story or that the Times does not think the story is as big an issue as the journalists think it is.

2. We know nothing about the substance of the story and its evidence- is there hard evidence of a quid pro quo (highly unlikely), mere circumstantial evidence of such, or simply evidence that McCain agreed to do something after a meeting/discussion with the lobbyist? Until we know those details, it is entirely irresponsible to pass judgment on the story- which is one of the biggest problems with getting your news from Drudge in the first place.

Assuming the basis for the story is that McCain received some kind of a campaign donation from the lobbyist or that he had a meeting with her, after which he did performed some legislative act on her client's behalf, this story shows the problems with our view of lobbying and "special interests." In many ways, I think it displays the unfairness of the BCRA regime and of the intuitions that underly BCRA. In the post-Buckley v. Valeo world, we now have all sorts of contribution limits; after BCRA, those limits apply to PACs as well, such that it is extremely difficult to obtain a meaningful campaign contribution from just one source. Of course, there is the issue of bundling, but I haven't seen any suggestion yet that the lobbyist here was a McCain bundler.

Considering those contribution limits and considering the amount that it now costs to run a campaign, it is exceedingly difficult to think that you can buy a politician's support simply by giving the politician a campaign donation or two. On top of that though, we have a problem where we have become so cynical (thanks in no small part to McCain's railing against lobbyists) that we immediately dismiss the possibility that a politician can be persuaded legitimately or that a politician might have a natural inclination towards a lobbyist's position in the first place.

Even if McCain received some sort of a clear quid pro quo from the lobbyist, this would show one of the fundamental problems with the lobbying "reform" over the years. Certainly, of course, such a quid pro quo would be truly deviant behavior on McCain's part. But it would also show the results of doing more and more to make lobbying an underground activity. When you force contributions underground, you get worse behavior than when you keep it out in the open, exposed to sunlight. This is how you wind up with lobbyists buying houses through third parties for politicians and things like that which are far, far more invidious than a publicly disclosed campaign contribution.

There is much more I'd love to say about this story, but unfortunately, I only have so much time in the day.

***UPDATE*** Flopping Aces is at least equally suspicious of this story.

Meanwhile, Riehl Worldview points out that McCain has a particularly cozy relationship with lobbyists. He links to a Public Citizen (one of those self-described "public" interest groups I love so dearly) study that shows McCain has more lobbyist bundlers than any other Presidential candidate. This certainly would suggest that the lobbyist at issue very well may be a bundler, contrary to my initial assumption.

If indeed this lobbyist is a McCain bundler, then this issue goes even further to prove my longstanding point that most measures to stop political corruption just wind up legitimizing it. In this case, we would do well to recall that the concept of "bundling" was non-existent before BCRA; indeed, the concept of "bundling" came about very much as a result of BCRA. Prior to BCRA, the great big evil was PACs, which themselves were a creature of the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms. Before that, the great evil was unlimited contribution sizes. But when contribution sizes were unlimited, a candidate need be beholden to only one or two interest groups; in some ways, the relationship between the candidate and the interest groups was often more one of mutual interest: since donations were unlimited in size, the interest group could spend all of its campaign donations on a handful of candidates that they particularly agreed with; meanwhile, the candidates only needed donations from a couple of interest groups that they may have already agreed with. As we've increased the number of "reforms" over the years, though, this has changed: now politicians must appeal to an increasingly large number of interest groups in order to raise the same amount of money. Conversely, interest groups wind up spreading their money around to more politicians, resulting in influence on more than just a handful of elected officials.

I should also add that without evidence of a direct quid pro quo, the assumption for McCain (as with, IMHO, any politician) should be that the lobbyist supports the politician because the politician supports the lobbyist and vice versa. In other words, there needs to be evidence that the lobbyist's status as a bundler caused McCain to do something for the lobbyist that McCain would not have otherwise done. Unfortunately, McCain, in his decades-long crusade against "special interests," has not held others to this standard; nonetheless, it is the standard that should apply in all cases like this.