Can You Hear Me Now, or Should We Throw Another Fundraiser?

Intern

Did phone company executives try to gain Senator Rockefeller's support for legislation to immunize telecoms from lawsuits alleging violations of wiretapping laws? Did they succeed? From the New York Times: Executives at the two biggest phone companies contributed more than $42,000 in political donations to Senator John D. Rockefeller IV this year while seeking his support for legal immunity for businesses participating in National Security Agency eavesdropping.The surge in contributions came from a Who’s Who of executives at the companies, AT&T and Verizon, starting with the chief executives and including at least 50 executives and lawyers at the two utilities, according to campaign finance reports.The money came primarily from a fund-raiser that Verizon held for Mr. Rockefeller in March in New York and another that AT&T sponsored for him in May in San Antonio.Mr. Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, emerged last week as the most important supporter of immunity in devising a compromise plan with Senate Republicans and the Bush administration.… Mr. Rockefeller received little in the way of contributions from AT&T or Verizon executives before this year, reporting $4,050 from 2002 through 2006. From last March to June, he collected a total of $42,850 from executives at the two companies.This certainly looks suspicious. But things aren't as they appear, according to the telecoms' defenders: A spokeswoman for AT&T, Claudia B. Jones, said contributions from its executives related to Mr. Rockefeller’s role on the Senate Commerce Committee, not immunity or other questions before the Intelligence Committee.This makes no sense. If AT&T executives make campaign contributions to influence Rockefeller's decisions on the Commerce Committee, then what possible reason could they have for not making contributions to influence his decisions on the Intelligence Committee?Rockefeller has his own none-too-convincing apologists:“The idea that John Rockefeller could be bought is kind of ridiculous,” said Matt Bennett, vice president for Third Way, a moderate Democratic policy group that has supported immunity for the phone carriers.“That these companies are going to focus their lobbying efforts where their business interests are is no revelation,” Mr. Bennett said. “That’s the standard Washington way of doing business. But you’re not going to buy a Rockefeller.”Presumably Bennett's point is that Rockefeller's support couldn't be influenced by big donors because he's so wealthy. This presupposes that large donations don't influence the legislative decisions of very wealthy politicians running for reelection because the latter don't need large donations; they could use their personal wealth instead of large donations to finance their campaigns. There are two problems with this. First, congressional campaigns are typically extremely expensive, and even the wealthiest would find financing one without big donors to be onerous. Second, Rockefeller has pledged to use none of his own money to fund his campaign. So even if it were feasible for him to substitute his personal wealth for large donations, it's irrelevant. His forswearing the use of his own money makes him dependent on donations, including large donations, to finance his reelection.I'm not saying that politicians will always support whoever contributes the most money to them. But I am saying that politicians - even the wealthiest - are keenly aware of the role that big donors play in their reelection and in the success of their party as a whole, and this knowledge affects their deliberations about which legislation to support.We don't know all the factors that influenced Rockefeller's decision. But given what we do know about this particular case and about the vital role that large donations generally play in politics, we are justified in believing that the telecom executives' donations influenced Rockefeller's support for immunizing the telecoms against the eavesdropping lawsuits. If Rockefeller didn't want his support to be tainted by the donations, then he never should have accepted them.by Jeff Allen (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) //= 0; i=i-1){ if (l.substring(0, 1) == ' ') output += "&#"+unescape(l.substring(1))+";"; else output += unescape(l); } document.getElementById('eeEncEmail_F06bfXnPQS').innerHTML = output; //]]> )

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