Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Buying your way to the White House

Democracy, or what passes for it, comes at a hefty price in the United States. It now seems that between them the Democrat and Republican hopefuls for the 2008 presidential race will raise $1,000 million dollars in campaign funds, the first time this has happened in American politics. Hillary Clinton is trying desperately to buy the Democrat nomination by raising more money than her rivals to force them out of the race. She raised $26m in the first quarter of 2007, more money than was raised by all nine Democratic candidates combined in the equivalent stage of the 2004 campaign. But she still can’t shake off Barack Obama, who raised $25m. Republican contender Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts, has also joined the big league, with a declared total of $23m. By the time the parties make their choices early in 2008, major Republican and Democratic nominees are likely to raise upwards of $500m apiece, hence the first $1 billion presidential election.

While individuals are giving through the Internet, the big money comes at a price – influence when your candidate gets to the Oval Office. The Bush administration is a prime example of how money talks in politics. Bush raised more than $350 million in campaign contributions for his two elections. It is believed up to half of that huge sum came from just 630 people, organised by an elite Texas-based group. A report by Texans for Public Justice, a group that monitors the network, revealed that, out of 630 elite donors from 2000 and 2004, almost one quarter were given an appointment by the Bush administration - including 24 ambassadorships and two cabinet positions. In 2002 more than $3.5 billion of federal contracts were given to 101 companies that between them boasted 123 members of the Texan group.

Director Andrew Wheat said: "We believe this is only the tip of the iceberg, too. This is only the stuff that we have been able to find out about." Some 146 of the donors had been involved in corporate scandals or helped to run companies that have. Most obvious was Kenneth Lay, who led the energy firm Enron into bankruptcy with a whole raft of dodgy, illegal, off-the-books contracts. Staff lost their pensions as the corporation went down. A typical story is that of West Virginia coal baron James Harless who contributed at least $200,000 to the Bush campaign. He saw his grandson appointed to a Department of Energy team working on new policies. Bush then reversed a campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and eased environmental restrictions on opencast mining. "Here is where ordinary Americans are sold down the river. When donations affect policy, it is ordinary people who end up biting the bullet," Wheat said. His report doesn’t even take account of the billions in kickbacks for firms like Halliburton, once run by vice-president Dick Cheney, for "reconstruction" work in Iraq. Heading towards 2008, American voters have little confidence in politicians. A recent CBS News-New York Times poll put trust in government at a rock-bottom 28%. Money patently buys plenty in American politics - but not endorsement from the voters, at least half of whom won’t vote in November 2008.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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