Best Buy targets are stopping a debt deal
By Thomas Ferguson
Back in America's gilded age, diagnosing legislative gridlock was so easy. Mark Twain put his
finger on the problem: "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly
native American criminal class except Congress." In 2011, financiers submerge financial reform
under a wave of campaign contributions while businesses and investors dispatch high-priced
lobbyists to stymie congressional action.
While we hold our breath to see if the Republican fixation with "no new taxes" will throw the
US into default, popular discussions of Congress have taken a curious turn. Pundits talk about
the good old days when representatives from different parties regularly played golf together and
compromised their differences in the name of the national interest. Why is this no longer
Political money that dominates Capitol Hill obviously plays some role in the stalemate machine.
But tired recitations of astronomical campaign finance spending totals miss the bigger picture.
For a tidal wave of cash has structurally transformed Congress, sweeping away the old seniority
system that governed leadership selection and committee assignments. In its place, the major
political parties borrowed a practice from big box retailers like Walmart, Best Buy or Target.
Uniquely among legislatures in the developed world, US congressional parties now post prices
for key slots in the lawmaking process. As Marian Currinder revealed in her book Money in the
House, the Democratic congressional campaign following the 2008 cycle asked members "to
contribute $125,000 in dues and to raise an additional $75,000 for the party". Senior politicians
with committee places were expected to raise more - in some cases $500,000. Roughly the same
expectation of money raising occurs on the other side too - but unlike most retailers, though,
there are never any sales. Prices only drift up over time.
The practice makes cash flow the basic determinant of the very structure of lawmaking. Instead
of possibly buffering Congress from at least some outside forces, committees and leadership
posts reflect the shape of political money. Outside investors and interest groups become decisive
in resolving leadership struggles within the parties.
The real rub is the way the system now centralises power in the hands of top congressional
leaders. In the new system, representatives dole out contributions to their colleagues, to influence
votes, as they bid for key positions within each chamber but they also must raise vast sums for
national party committees, which the congressional leadership controls.
The leadership's hold over the swelling coffers of the national party campaign committees, along
with the huge fixed investments in polling, research, and media capabilities these committees
maintain, provide them with the extra resources they need to cajole and threaten candidates to toe
the party line. Entrenched incumbents can sometimes resist, but anyone facing a strong
challenger or, especially, candidates in so-called "open seat races," feel the pinch. They are
handed not only money, but the message, consultants, and polling they need to be competitive
but could rarely afford on their own.
Congressional campaigns thus acquire a more national flavour. They also rely heavily on the
endless repetition of a handful of slogans that have been battle tested for their appeal to national
investor blocs and interest groups that the leadership relies on for resources.
As anyone can see in the debate over raising the budget ceiling, legislative tactics also shift.
Party leaders grandstand by digging in and trying to hold up legislation. They also push hot
button legislative issues with no chance of passage, just to win plaudits and money from
supporters. Aware that most Americans pay little attention, both parties flood the airwaves with
more of the same old same old, hoping that some of it will stick.
All this creates legislative leviathans with top heavy, cash-rich leadership structures within each
party. Representatives think twice before crossing party lines and national party campaigns rest
heavily on slogan filled, expensive, lowest common denominator appeals to collections of
special interests. The Congress of our new gilded age is far from the best Congress money can
buy; it may well be the worst.
The writer is professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston; senior
fellow at the Roosevelt Institute; and a member of the advisory board of the Institute for New