Politics & Prejudices
In Congress, big-money interest groups rule
Buying a seat in Congress.
Published: April 15, 2014
Within the last month, two longtime, solidly entrenched Michigan Republican congressmen surprised everyone by unexpectedly announcing their retirements.
Both were powerful committee chairs, and both had basically safe districts. Dave Camp represents a seat so Republican that the voters would cheerfully elect Richard Nixon’s corpse if someone dug it up and put it on the ballot.
Mike Rogers’ Lansing-area district is a little less partisan, and it’s barely conceivable that a Democrat could win here. Indeed, he nearly lost the first time he ran, beating a legislator named Dianne Byrum by a mere 88 votes.
Now, with him leaving Congress, it was clear that there was one Democrat who did have an outside chance to win — Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, daughter of the former candidate who, like her mom, served in the legislature.
But, alas, Barb ain’t going there. Last week she held a press conference to announce that “after carefully considering a run for Congress, I have determined I can best serve the residents of Michigan by continuing my role as Ingham County clerk.”
She went on, evidently feeling the need to convince people, or perhaps herself, that this was so. “Continuing to serve as Ingham County Clerk allows me to more directly fight for issues that will move our state forward,” she chirped.
Nobody in politics would rather be clerk of a middle-sized county than serve in Congress. In fact, Byrum wouldn’t even have had to give up her beloved clerk’s job to run.
Her current term lasts two more years. If she had told the truth, she would have said something like this:
“I would love to be in Congress. But I can’t get the money. This race would be a long shot, and to have any chance of winning in November, I’d have to raise at least $3 million.
“I know there’s no way anybody will give me that kind of money, and I don’t want my career destroyed by a devastating loss, so I’m sitting this one out. Maybe in a few years, something will open up that I can win, or a Democratic governor will appoint me to something.”
By the way, I don’t mean to pick on Barb Byrum. While her excuse for not running was ridiculous, I have long admired her. She was a competent legislator of integrity who has been especially good on women’s and human rights issues.
The problem is that seats in Congress are for sale. Not just some of them; all of them. In nearly every case, to have any chance of winning, you have to be vastly wealthy — or, more usually, have the support of big-money interest groups.
Otherwise, forget it. There are a few rare exceptions — but very few. Consider this: Members of Congress, except the top leadership, make salaries of $174,000 a year.
That may sound like a lot, but it’s not. Not when you consider that you have to live in two places and may have kids to send to school. Know what it costs to get elected to a two-year term? Nationally, the average two years ago was $1.6 million.
Think about that. These guys have to raise $800,000 a year for a job that pays less than a quarter of that.
Spending in Michigan is even worse. Four years ago, the retiring Dave Camp spent $3 million to get re-elected against token opposition. Rogers spent almost $1.8 million.
If the contests are heated, spending goes through the roof. Now — why do people give congressional candidates all that money? Politicians and hookers have something in common.
They know that if men give you money, they want something for it. Offering to bribe a public official is even more illegal than offering a woman on Michigan Avenue $50 for sex.
But there’s a clear understanding that if Obnoxious Polluters Inc. gives you campaign cash, they want you to vote a certain way on environmental legislation.
Nobody has to be told which way.
Our system is fundamentally corrupt, and getting more so all the time. In January 2010, in its infamous Citizens United case, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed there could be no limits on how much corporations spend to influence elections. The high court did say states could require transparency so we could at least see who was buying our votes.
But not in Michigan. Last year, State Sen. Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, a particularly odious specimen, rammed through a law to prevent the Secretary of State from requiring full disclosure of who was paying for so-called “issue ads” that are usually attacks on one candidate or another.
Gov. Rick Snyder then signed that bill, eliminating any final pretense that he was a “moderate.”
The bottom line is this: You can only get elected to Congress if special interest groups buy you a seat, and the law now allows them to hide the fact that they have done so.
We tell our children we have a system called democracy. If you’ve read this far, you know that it’s anything but.
> Email Jack Lessenberry