Columns » Max Brantley

Pay to play. Really?

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The announcement that Bill Clinton will distance himself and foreign and corporate contributors from the Clinton Foundation if Hillary Clinton is elected president has, if anything, increased attention to the intersection of money and politics at the Foundation, along with the ongoing email controversy.

The Foundation has raised millions for its work, including substantial sums from foreign governments and corporate executives with broad interest in U.S. policy, foreign and domestic. To critics, it's pure "pay to play." Money is being given to the Clinton Foundation — if not for explicit government action — for access to the Clintons and, it is presumed, fond remembrance. Appearances justify close inspection, even for those times when no Clinton held a public office but was merely planning ahead for one. Many critics think the only solution is to shut down the foundation. The time to end contributions and Bill Clinton's rainmaking is now, not after November, they say.

Conflict of interest alert: My daughter has a job at the Clinton Foundation. She works on sustainable agriculture and health clinics in Africa.

Close inspection of the intersection of money, charity and politics is fair game. But foundation critics would sound more sincere if they devoted equivalent passion to a political system that operates far more obviously and directly on the pay-to-play model. A key difference is the much rarer altruistic byproduct of the political version of the game.

Do the Kochs put hundreds of millions into political campaign contributions to help small-plot soybean farmers in Malawi or to build clinics to distribute HIV medicine? No, they put in millions to cut their taxes, reduce government regulation of pollution-spewing businesses and elect like-minded representatives from the county courthouse to the White House. The Kochs are not alone. The big spenders can be found on all pages of the political ledger. Money is given and access is expected in return — a meeting with a top aide, if not the politician herself; return phone calls; responses to letters; invitations to state dinners; sympathetic voting records; and so on.

Lately, I've been interested in the expanded corruption of the pay-to-play system in Arkansas under the voter-approved "Ethics" Amendment of 2014. Legislative manipulation has adapted the amendment to 1) raise legislative pay substantially; 2) extend legislators' term limits; and 3) make it almost impossible to sustain an ethics violation. A "mulligan" rule allows an erring legislator to correct violations before a penalty is imposed.

But, defenders will say, the "ethics" amendment DID outlaw direct corporate contributions to political candidates. Big deal. The loophole is huge. Corporations still may give to PACs and political party committees, and they do so lavishly. Through those legal filters, the corporate money still reaches the candidates. Some of them even have PACs of their own to raise still more corporate money to give to like-minded colleagues. Pay to play? You betcha.

Asa Hutchinson hasn't completed a second full year as governor, but he's already raised almost $500,000 in a PAC that returns its corporate-sourced money to Republican Party committees and to dozens of Republican legislative candidates — $135,900 so far in 2016 with more to come in fall races.

Does Hutchinson know and appreciate that his money came, just to name a random few, from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Walmart, the soft drink lobby (still aching to end the soda tax in Arkansas), the motion picture lobby, North Little Rock real estate developers and Tyson Foods? I'm betting he does. Or at least the right people in his camp do. Pay to play? You betcha.

Conner Eldridge called Republican Senate opponent John Boozman's hand on money this week. Boozman scoops millions from PACs and refuses to endorse legislation to close the Citizens United corporate finance loophole or require disclosure of contributors to dark money political operations. That's not corrupt. But the Clinton Foundation? It must be shut down.

Here's one thing you're not likely to find on finance reports by the Asa PAC or any of the organizations working to elect John Boozman or Donald Trump: a single dime of spending on a dose of HIV-fighting medicine.

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