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How Corporations Run Congress: A Talk With Ryan Grim

This is not democracy.

Interview excerpt with Ryan Grim on The Zero Hour.

Merriam-Webster’s first definition of “corruption” is “impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle.” Another is “a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct.” Has democracy been corrupted by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision? Has its integrity and virtue been compromised? Does today’s electoral process reflect what the Founders envisioned?

Writing the majority opinion in Citizens United, Justice Anthony Kennedy assured us that this decision would not have a corrupting influence on democracy. “(T)his Court now concludes,” wrote Kennedy, “that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Avoiding the appearance of corruption, as well as corrupting itself, was essential to the Court’s ruling, since the mere appearance of corruption discourages voters and hampers democracy. For the Court’s reasoning to stand, elected officials must forever remain like Caesar’s wife: above suspicion. Justice Kennedy’s opinion assured us that, even with “independent” spending limits raised, they would.

A recent Huffington Post article by Paul Blumenthal and Ryan Grim, “The Inside Story Of How Citizens United Has Changed Washington Lawmaking,” explored the impact of that ruling five years on. It concluded that:

“According to an extensive review of public documents … as well as interviews with lobbyists and policymakers, Kennedy’s allegedly independent spending has become increasingly intertwined with lobbying and legislation — the precise appearance of corruption campaign finance laws were meant to curb.”

Blumenthal and Grim describe a world in which the employees of outside groups, capable of funneling enormous amounts of money into House and Senate campaigns, interact routinely with elected officials and their staffs – so much so that they are allowed to publicly identify themselves as members of a “team” (“Team Boehner,” in this case) and are widely understood to be close associates of powerful public figures.

We spoke with Grim about this report on the Zero Hour (see excerpt above). The Citizens United decision, said Grim, “brings corporate money into the equation … increasingly you’ll see a lot of these dark money groups funded more and more by companies, rather than individuals, and that means that these legislators are very much dependent for their reelection on these corporations – in a much more direct and corrupt way than they were in the past.”

Grim and Blumenthal concentrated on three leaders: House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Democrats aren’t immune. “It’s unfortunate that we have the decision Citizens United,” Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta told The Huffington Post, “but as long as that’s the law of the land, then Democrats and Republicans are both active in these kinds of endeavors.”

The corrupting race to the bottom – a race that had been underway for many years even before Citizens United – accelerated in the wake of the Court’s decision. This, despite the fact that Justice Kennedy sought to square that decision with previous rulings which had found that Congress had the right to engage in “the prevention of corruption and the appearance of corruption” and to ensure that money was not given to politicians “to secure a political quid pro quo.”

Kennedy wrote that the spending limits overturned by Citizens United were not necessary because “[t]he absence of prearrangement and coordination … alleviates the danger that expenditures will be given as a quid pro quo for improper commitments from the candidate.”

But Congress deals with matters affecting industry on a daily basis, even as its leaders deal with industry representatives as “team” members — representatives who control the flow of millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

Which industries are represented on these “teams”? As Grim said in our interview:

In Reid’s case it’s more small-bore stuff – mining companies, diamond companies, casino companies. In the case of Boehner and McConnell it’s entire swaths of industries — insurers, coal companies, oil companies, drug makers — and so you end up seeing this massive lobbying spending to, say, Team Boehner’s people. At the same time you see these same outfits, these same corporations, giving money to the SuperPAC that elects John Boehner.

Grim added, “increasingly you’ll see a lot of these dark money groups funded more and more by companies … (which) means that these legislators are very much dependent for their reelection on these corporations, in a much more direct and corrupt way than they were in the past.”

Hill staffers are inevitably drawn into the web of influence. As Grim told me, “even before Citizens United … the disparity of pay between Hill staffers and lobbyists” led to undue influence, “because Hill staffers are going to want to get into the good graces of future employers.”

Elected officials face the same temptation. They see their colleagues winning lucrative positions, some as lobbyists and others little more than sinecures — provided they’ve helped their future employers in their elected capacity. Retired politicians from both parties provide ample evidence of this corrupting process. In a very real sense, continued re-election becomes less important than a long game which leads to a wealthy post-political future. Matt Stoller had an apt analogy. “Elections in many ways are just like regular season games in basketball,” Stoller wrote. “(T)hey are worth winning, but it’s not worth risking an injury.”

The Citizens United decision was dependent on Kennedy’s assurance that it would not lead to even the appearance of corruption. Grim and Blumenthal’s findings challenge that assertion. Public confidence in Congress has already plunged to record lows, according to Gallup, and so has confidence in the Supreme Court.

Neither of those results are surprising. This is not democracy.