Tuesday, February 03, 2004
Good government groups and judges usually talk about what they call "quid pro quo" corruption as the major problem with money in politics. It's a Latin phrase, meaning roughly "trading something for something." I guess it makes the do-gooders feel smart to use Latin phrases that the rest of us can't understand. Naive reformers seem to think that special interests just walk into a politician's office and say "I'll give you $1000 if you give me a special tax break, is it a deal?" Recently, we've heard cries about how trading "access" for contributions is the biggest threat to our democracy.
A story about even fairly low budget local elections from the Sacramento Bee explains why this quid pro quo concern is really pretty minor compared to what's really going on. In Roseville, California, the city council just voted to approve a massive sprawling new development. Roseville limits contributions to candidates to $500. Nobody seriously thinks you can buy a councilor's vote for $500, so the danger of outright quid pro quo corruption isn't that great. But, that doesn't really matter since most folks can't give $500 for a local election.
But, as one anti-sprawl activist explains in the article, "Campaigns are getting so expensive that candidates cannot get elected without developer money. I'm willing to believe that there's no quid pro quo. But the (candidates) had very pro-development views coming in and that's how they were able to attract developer money in the first place."
One of the pro-development councilors spent more than $100,000 in 1998 to get elected. Two others spent about $60,000 recently. The anti-sprawl activist says "for a person to raise that much money without developer money would be very difficult." Of that, one raised $20,000 from developers. His opponent only raised $10,000 total.
The pro-development politicians defend themselves, saying their was no quid pro quo. "My vote is not for sale. I did nothing illegal. It's all reported." Maybe so, but do they honestly think they'd have been elected in the first place if they didn't agree with the pro-development positions of their donors? Do they think they'd get re-elected if they stood up to the special interests, or would the donors just fund some new lackey to defeat them in the next election?
The developers certainly think their money is well spent, even if they get no quid pro quo in return. One of them wrote a letter to other developers in the campaign saying "Funneling contributions is an unpleasant task, but one of the most important investments that you can make in our project."