Saturday, August 29, 2009




To understand why most Californians – and other Americans, too – feel so alienated from their representatives in Congress, it helps to observe an old dictum: Follow the money.

If you do that, it’s easy to see why constituents often conclude that the people charged with seeing to their interests care more about various special interests based in Washington, D.C. and certain other wealthy ZIP codes.

That’s because very little of the campaign money raised by members of this state’s 53-member delegation in the House of Representatives comes from anyone who can vote for them. Rather, the moneybags are people and interests concerned strictly with how those Californians vote in Congress.

On average, California members of the House raised 82 percent of their funds outside their districts during the period from 2005 through 2007, the latest period for which figures are finalized. That statistic was developed by a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group called, whose aim is to “illuminate the connection between money and politics.” MAPLight used numbers provided by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics (See the full report at

Here are the figures on a few of California’s most prominent Congressional veterans:

-- Fortney (Pete) Stark, whose safely Democratic district covering the east shore of San Francisco Bay from Alameda to Fremont has kept him in office by wide margins since 1972. Stark raised $737,000 in the two-year period, ostensibly to defend his seat. In last spring’s primary election, he drew more than 250,000 votes to fewer than 3,000 for the Republican he trounced in the fall. So Stark plainly did not need all that money. But he did top the entire Congress in raising 99 percent of his funds outside his district.

-- Jerry Lewis, 16-term Republican from a San Bernardino County district centered on Redlands. Lewis, who had a bit more of a challenge last fall than in other years, mostly because of an ongoing corruption investigation, raised $1.58 million in the two-year period, 96 percent out of state. The top 10 ZIP codes from which his money came were all in the Washington, D.C. area.

-- Nancy Pelosi, Democratic House speaker from San Francisco, who faced a somewhat fanciful challenge last year from a longtime peace activist angry that Pelosi didn’t orchestrate an impeachment of ex-President George W. Bush, who was about to leave office anyway. Pelosi raised $3.2 million in the two years, spending very little on her reelection. Fully 87 percent of that money came from outside her district, with $1.1 million from the D.C. area.

-- Henry Waxman, longtime Democratic congressman from the west side of Los Angeles and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Waxman, whose district includes the wealth of Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Bel Air, has not had a serious challenger in decades. Nevertheless, he raised $1.1 million, with 91 percent coming from outside his district. More than half came from the Washington D.C. area, with only 20 percent originating in California.

These are only a few examples, but together they demonstrate that members of Congress are not exactly beholden to the people who elect them, but rather to special interests bent on influencing their votes.

Those four and other longtime incumbents all have enjoyed safe, or almost safe, seats for many years. They raise money, in part, to pass on to other candidates in tighter races, thus picking up chits they can call in when rounding up votes for a pet bill or a cause important to them.

Said Daniel Newman, MAPLight founder and director, “Instead of a voting democracy, we have a dollar democracy – may the biggest-spending special interest win.”

Arguing the other side, Democratic political consultant Roger Salazar says members of Congress “never know what’s going to happen. They might suddenly find themselves with a serious opponent. Also, people in Congress are national figures with reputations beyond their districts.”

But Charles Keating, the convicted fraudster who was the symbol of the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, may have summed it up from the donors’ viewpoint. Asked whether he expected that officials to whom he contributed would vote his way or influence federal officials on his behalf, he responded, “Why else would I give them all that money?”

Few of today’s donors are as open as Keating about what they’re really after, often adorning their largesse with idealistic language.

But the reality is that donor motivations haven’t changed a bit since Keating’s heyday, nor has the willingness of elected officials to take their money and play their games, which often ignore the well-being of the people who elect them.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

No comments:

Post a Comment