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|Wed, 09-08-2010 - 4:17am|
I had made reference to corruption in government contracting in another thread, but the corruption described here is a different kind. I thought the phrase "Washington’s pay-to-play culture" was particularly apt.
Alms for the Rich and Powerful
Published: September 7, 2010
The Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel sounds like a lovely idea: a charitable foundation that sends inner-city high school students from Baltimore to Israel to learn about the country and develop leadership skills. The program has undoubtedly been of benefit to many teenagers, but deeper pockets have benefited as well. Comcast, the cable company, has given generously to the foundation, prompting Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Baltimore, to urge the Federal Communications Commission to approve Comcast’s proposed merger with NBC. His charity even wrote its own letter to the F.C.C., saying it supports the merger in part because Comcast gives it money.
As Eric Lipton reported in The Times on Monday, charities set up by a score of lawmakers from both parties have become an important — and completely unregulated — way for corporations and lobbyists to get their voices heard and to curry favor on Capitol Hill. While both donors and recipients claim that the millions of dollars pouring into these foundations are good for communities, the real purpose is to make lawmakers look good while skirting limits on campaign contributions and open another door to Washington’s pay-to-play culture.
Take, for example, the Utah Families Foundation, a charity that the state’s Republican senior senator, Orrin Hatch, helped establish. While the foundation distributes money to food pantries and women’s shelters, the big companies that gave at least $20,000 got to meet with Mr. Hatch at a foundation golf tournament. Fifteen companies did so, and not for the “executive tee bag” that was also a perk for those high donors. Nine of them were drug companies that have won the senator’s help in reducing federal demands for low-cost generics.
Or consider the dozen or so nuclear energy companies that were suddenly interested in financing scholarships for needy South Carolina students once Representative James Clyburn set up a charity to do so. The foundation holds an annual golf tournament and dinner at which corporate givers can hang around Mr. Clyburn, the Democratic whip, and donate to his favorite charity. Nuclear companies said openly they were happy to reward Mr. Clyburn for his support of their industry.
Congressional rules require corporate lobbyists to disclose donations to lawmakers’ charities, but many fail to do so with no consequence. The charities themselves are not required to disclose their donors, and there are no limits to the amount a donor can give. The Office of Congressional Ethics looked into a few of these foundations last year, but was stymied when the House granted several congressmen the right to solicit donations even when the donors had business before their committees.
The art of currying favor in Washington is an ancient one, and both lawmakers and corporations have become exceptionally creative at finding ways around every legal obstacle reducing the influence of big money. But these “donations” need to be fully disclosed and strictly limited like the campaign contributions they resemble. Members of Congress should pay heed to the rising tide of anti-incumbent disgust this year and stop acting like greedy chiselers of corporate largess.
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Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.
– George Orwell