Blair Horner: American Democracy Hits A New Low

Nov 27, 2017

There has been a palpable decline in political ethics in America.  What was once suspected – that elected officials could their trade policy positions for campaign contributions – has become more and more openly discussed.  It’s as if elected officials no longer see themselves as servants to the public, but instead as servants to the rich and powerful.

Americans long suspected that this has been the case.   Poll after poll has shown that Democrats and Republicans agree on this key point.  A poll in 2015 found that 84 percent of Americans think money has too much influence in political campaigns. Criticism of the role of political money cuts across party lines - large majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents all think money has too much influence.

But now, to some extent as a result of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have eroded prosecutors’ ability to enforce anticorruption laws, coupled with the obvious disdain that the President shows toward acceptable ethical standards, members of Congress are now openly admitting that their policy positions are directly connected to the wishes of their campaign donors, even if the public disagrees.

Earlier in the year, the evidence was based on the effort to repeal federal health insurance coverage.  Key Republican operatives concerned about their party’s midterm re-election push were warned that donors were refusing to contribute until the Congressional majorities produced victories.  In one private meeting, it was reported that “Donors are furious.”  These donors were not concerned that millions of Americans would lose their health care coverage and that some would get unnecessarily sick, instead they were “furious” because Congressional Republicans haven’t kept their promise to eliminate insurance coverage.

In another reported example, a prominent Republican donor stated that the “Dallas piggy bank” was closed until there is progress on health care repeal and tax cuts. The donor was reported as saying, “Get [health care repeal and tax reform] done and we’ll open [fundraising] back up.”

Now it’s the so-called tax reform bill.  After a private meeting of Republican Senators, Sen. Lindsey Graham told an NBC reporter “financial contributions will stop” if tax reform does not pass.

Even one of New York’s Congressional Republicans, Representative Collins from the Buffalo area was reported to have said, “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get [tax reform] done or don’t ever call me again.”’

While it’s no surprise that campaign contributors expect that their donations will influence elected officials, it is nothing short of shocking that public officials are being so open about how they transact policymaking.

Reports that the various tax reform plans are nothing more than tax cuts for wealthy individuals and large businesses, have eroded the popularity of the plan.  A poll released by the Wall Street Journal/NBC News found that only 25 percent of Americans said the tax reform/cut plan was “good idea.” (A solid majority of American also support the Affordable Care Act.)

But the eroding popularity of these ideas hasn’t reduced the pressure from the donor class.  Instead the political calculus appears to be to deliver for the political contributors now, raise big bucks for campaign warchests and try to take some of the sting out of these moves in advance of the midterm elections next year.

The nasty – and transactional nature – of American politics is taking its toll.  Recent polls find Americans increasingly unhappy with the direction of the country.  In one, 70 percent said the nation is facing its widest political divide since the Vietnam War.

This month’s Washington Post-University of Maryland poll revealed voters’ deeply depressing view of U.S. politics, widespread distrust of the nation’s political leaders and their ability to compromise, and an erosion of pride in the way democracy works in America.

What has become clear is that elected officials’ disregard for ethics, their increasingly brazen actions to transact policy for campaign donations, and public demands from the rich and powerful for action is taking its toll – not only on unpopular Congressional actions, but an erosion of public support for democracy itself.

That has to change and soon.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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