Ever since Watergate, the political class in Washington — and those who want to make it to Washington — has promised to clean up politics, end corruption, and reduce the bitter partisanship that plagues the Beltway.
Barack Obama's first presidential campaign explicitly included those pledges as part of the "hope and change" he would usher in, while his second presidential campaign relied on populist scolding of the wealthy for not paying for their "fair share" of American government. When the Supreme Court struck down part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA, better known as McCain-Feingold) in the Citizens United decision, President Obama castigated the Supreme Court during the State of the Union speech in 2010, with the justices present, for not preventing the wealthy from perverting American politics and choosing to defend free political speech instead.
As recently as July of last year, Obama was still demanding that Congress pass the DISCLOSE Act as an antidote to the Citizens United decision, and waggled his finger at Senate Republicans for not supporting it. "Republicans in the Senate had the chance to change it," Obama said in an official White House statement. "They had the opportunity to support a bill that would prevent the worst effects of the Citizens United decision and require groups or special interests who are trying to influence elections to reveal their donors so the public will know who's funding their political ads."
Clearly, the White House and President Obama object to having the wealthy influence elections with their cash. When it comes to influencing the government, however, that's a different story. The New York Times' Nick Confessore reported over the weekend that Obama's former presidential campaign-turned-activist group, Organizing for America (OFA), has begun a fundraising drive and wants to attract big donors. And it has something to sell — access to the president and seats on an advisory panel.
Half of the funding for OFA is expected to come from wealthy donors, each pledging to raise and/or donate $500,000 to kick into the tax-exempt "social welfare group." Obama's aides will appear at fundraising events for OFA, which should raise eyebrows on its own. But the benefit of the big-ticket donations should drop jaws as well as raise eyebrows:
"Giving or raising $500,000 or more puts donors on a national advisory board for Mr. Obama's group and the privilege of attending quarterly meetings with the president, along with other meetings at the White House," Confessore reports. "Moreover, the new cash demands on Mr. Obama's top donors and bundlers come as many of them are angling for appointments to administration jobs or ambassadorships."
There is nothing new about selling ambassadorships, not in this administration or that of any American president in recent memory. Ambassadorships have long been a perk for donors and cronies, especially to countries with lower strategic value. The outright sale of seats for meetings at the White House is something very new, however, and amounts to a form of simony at the Church of Hope and Change.
It's especially egregious considering the context of other presidential advisory boards. Obama launched the Simpson-Bowles commission (officially the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) and then apparently only met with them once to discuss their deficit-cutting efforts. Obama also formed a "Jobs Council" in early 2011 to defend himself against criticism for having too few advisers with real-world business experience and losing focus on the economy. In the two years of the council's existence, it officially met a total of four times, only one of which was with Obama, and hadn't held an official meeting in the year previous to its expiration at the end of January 2013.
Big donors to OFA, however, will get much more attention. Instead of a cursory single briefing on piddling issues like the explosion of national debt and the dearth of job creation in the Obama recovery, OFA donors get quarterly sessions with the president to discuss … "social welfare." Forget what this says about integrity in governance; what does it say about the priorities of the president?
"This just looks bad," remarked NBC's Chuck Todd on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "It looks like the White House is selling access.... If you believe money has a stranglehold over the entire political system, this is ceding the moral high ground."
It cedes a lot more than that. While no one should be surprised by a politician from Chicago innovating new ways to sell political power, the entire exercise demonstrates just how misguided campaign-finance efforts have been for the last several decades. In attempts to impose artificial restrictions and definitions on money (hard money, soft money, super PACs), we have created such a byzantine labyrinth of organization that it all but eliminates accountability for messaging and ethics. Without those "reforms," an organization like OFA wouldn't exist, because those donors would send their money directly to candidates and political parties, who would then be accountable for the cash they received from their donors and the messaging and policies that resulted.
This is just another reminder that the only real reform that will improve the political process is the end of all these artificial distinctions and limits, replaced instead by a requirement for immediate transparency. It's also another reminder that the politicians that scold the most about transparency and integrity are the ones that provide the least amount of both.