26 Mar 2012

What political donations get you in Washington

The Peter Cruddas case may have shocked Britain and panicked Downing Street. In Washington that kind of money would have bought you not just dinner with the president but – once upon a time – a sleep-over in the White House.

Bill Clinton briefly raised eyebrows in 1997 –a year before he made America’s jaws drop with the Monika Lewinsky affair – when it was revealed that he had “rented” out the Lincoln bedroom in the White House to generous fundraisers. He swiftly pointed out that this was perfectly legal and published a list of all his guests and how he entertained them.

For instance, Hollywood director Stephen Spielberg had been for at least three sleep-overs, not just because he was such a fabulous moviemaker and great company, but also because he had donated $336 000 to Clinton’s re-election in 1996.

The White House detailed 800 guests who had all been invited to spend the night at the White House in return for money, which was mainly donated to the Democratic National Committee.

When he came to office, President Obama said this exchange of quality time for cash would end. A year later the rules were relaxed. Sleep-overs in the White House are still frowned upon, but according to the Associated Press, 250 Obama fundraisers have been invited to dinners or lunches or coffee breaks with the president or other senior administration figures since the middle of 2009.

Thirty guests at the glittering state dinner which the Obamas gave for the Camerons earlier this month were invited because they were major donors for the president’s re-election campaign.

America’s ambassador to the UK, Louis Susman, got the job because as a wealthy Chicago businessman he became a “bundler” for Obama during the last election. In other words he bundled or herded together dozens of rich friends and acquaintances to give cash to Obama.

Some ambassadorial postings go to professional diplomats from the State Department. Some of the most high profile ones like Rome, London or Paris are seen as political rewards.

Remember Shirley Temple, that child actress turned veteran diplomat who became America’s ambassador to Ghana (1974) and Czechoslovakia (1989)? The exchange of money for access to the White House is not just common practice in the US, it has become an essential incentive in campaigns that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

American presidential candidates rely on rich people to raise the money that gets them elected. This has long been true, but thanks to a 2010 ruling in the Supreme Court that allowed individuals to ply unlimited funds into so-called Super PACs, or political action committees, money has become even more important as the lifeblood of any campaign. As long as there is no coordination between the candidate and the Super Pac the cash is completely legitimate.

Newt Gingrich’s campaign would have fizzled back in December if the Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson had not poured tens of millions of dollars into a Super PAC that has paid for the TV advertising attacking his chief rival Mitt Romney. Mr Adelson and his wife care first and foremost about protecting Israel from an Iranian nuclear threat and not surprisingly perhaps this is one of Newt’s signature issues on the stump.

Romney’s campaign has attracted so much money from Super PACs he was able to outspend his nearest rival Rick Santorum nine to one in the all important Ohio primary. And Obama himself raised $45m in February alone, $6m of which have gone to his Super Pac, Priorities USA. One million dollars came from Cable TV comedian Bill Maher.

The question is if the cheques written by individuals can get bigger and bigger, will they demand more access, will they be in a stronger position to influence policy? The White House, any White House, would say no. Of course. I would love to see a detailed analysis of money donated and policies promoted. But one thing that dilutes the power of money to buy policy is that the legislative process is so messy, chaotic and frequently fruitless, it becomes a lousy investment.

I suspect that most of the millionaires and billionaires who give money to presidential candidates from either party are doing it because they have lorry loads of spare cash and want to brag about sleep-overs in the White House or midnight snacks with the president of the United States.

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7 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:


    One thing you can’t accuse the US political Establishment of is Brit-style hypocrisy. They have their own version.

    Ever since George Washington their basic tenet is: you can buy your way in and buy anyone you want, and to hell with democracy and responsibility. Even their constitution was written for their merchant barons in similar fashion to Magna Carta for feudal barons.

    Hence everything is up for grabs, all politics merely a matter of what you can get away with.

    What was that political song in “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”? Wasn’t it called, “Oo I Like To Dance a L’il Sidestep”? In a Texas accent of course :-)

  2. SOONERS says:

    Wow another amazing negative story about America.. Keep up the good work Matt. Your doing an amazing job on the Negative America campaign……

    1. Saltaire Sam says:

      Sooners, is anything Matt has written incorrect? It’s a relevant story in light of what is happening at Westminster at the moment.

      Part of the job of a journalist is to hold a society up to scrutiny and let the people know what is going on.

      Journalists in most (every?) country find themselves reporting more of the bad news than the good news. Sadly, ‘beautiful people enjoy California sunshine’ is regularly true but not a story, and if someone published a piece under the headline MP is honest, the response should be so what?

      As a quite regular visitor to and supporter of the States, I find Matt’s reports entertaining and informative and they prime my pump ready for the next discussion on an Amtrak going somewhere new.

  3. Saltaire Sam says:

    You can also buy the chance to have dinner with the Obamas for as little as a $5 donation.

    If British politicians went out to get thousands of small donations as he has done, they might soon find out how charismatic they are. They might also have to listen to ordinary people more.

  4. Philip says:

    politics attracts money just as sh*t attracts flies

  5. sue_m says:

    So in America it is common practice to expect something in return for funding a political party but most likely that return is to be able to boast about staying at the White House. And since there are many donors of large sums the power of each is reduced.

    Whereas in the smaller, more clique’y world of UK politics a massive donation is more likely to get your political demands met as there are less of them and our system of elected dictatorship means the incumbent govt can pretty much push anything through. As proved by the passing of the health bill against almost everyones wishes and judgement. Makes you wonder how many healthcare companies donated last time around.

    1. Saltaire Sam says:

      Probably didn’t have to Sue with so many shareholders in commons and lords.

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