Porn rentals, duck islands and moat-cleaning are among the frivolities British members of Parliament have charged to their expense accounts. The people of the UK are appalled. It is estimated that the scandal could cost more than half of Britain’s 646 MPs their seats in the next election.
Hyping the outrage, the New York Times’ John F. Burns writes of “an upsurge in public anger over venality that seems to have run like a virus through the House of Commons.”
But when it comes to living large with the public’s money, members of Parliament have nothing on members of Congress.
First, a baseline perspective: Last year, members of Parliament earned £61,000 ($93,000) and on average claimed £135,000 ($214,685) in expenses. In the United States, each member of Congress was paid $174,000 and allotted between $1.3 million and $4.5 million for official expenses.
Then there is the question of legal bribery. British election law strictly regulates campaign contributions, the vast majority of which are made to political parties, not individual members of Parliament. Not so in the United States.
During the 2007-2008 election cycle, banking industry employees and bank-sponsored political action committees contributed $152 million to candidates for federal office. On June 3, The Wall Street Journal reported that in the first three months of this year, a coalition of 31 financial institutions spent $27.6 million on federal lobbying and contributed $286,000 to members of Congress who sit on the committees that oversee the banking industry.
It was money well spent. In April, for example, Congress voted to weaken regulations on how corporations calculate the worth of the assets they hold. As a result, troubled institutions like CitiGroup were able to post a $1.6 billion profit in the first quarter.
There is a remedy to such legal graft.
The Fair Elections Now Act is currently before both the House and Senate. The legislation would set up a system to finance congressional campaigns with a combination of small dollar individual contributions and public monies. The idea is to get special interest dollars, and the expectations that accompany those contributions, out of the legislative process.
Here’s the catch: Few people have even heard about the proposed legislation, and there is little popular pressure to get it on the books. The networks ignore campaign finance reform, probably because their lobbying arm, the National Association of Broadcasters, oppose it.
The only network to cover the story when the bill was introduced on March 31 was Fox News. Naturally, these fair and balanced reporters gave most of the airtime to America’s civics teacher, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R- Ky.). “Tax money to pay for our bumper stickers, balloons and attack ads,” sputtered McConnell. “It’s the ultimate outrage.”
But a recent survey by Lake Research Partners and the Terrance Group found that 67 percent of those questioned would support giving qualified candidates a limited amount of public funding if they agreed to stop taking large contributions. Furthermore, 79 percent of Americans see large campaign contributions as a roadblock to solving America’s economic, healthcare and energy problems.
Apparently the public would rather suffer the “outrage” of buying Mitch McConnell’s balloons than allow private corporations to buy their government.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.