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"Levey Live" archives

Q&A With Larry Makinson

Tuesday, June 8, 1999

"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's your chance to talk directly to to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
Craig Cola/
Bob's guest today is Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, an organization devoted to studying the impact of money in federal politics and its effect on public policy. Makinson has been focusing on how political contributions affect campaigns since 1985, when he was a reporter for Alaska's Anchorage Daily News.

Larry Makinson
Larry Makinson
Makinson joined the Center for Responsive Politics--a non-profit research organization--in 1988, becoming its executive director in 1998. The author of more than 20 books and reports examining cash-flow patterns in politics, Makinson also produced "Open Secrets: The Encyclopedia of Congressional Money & Politics." This regularly updated 1,300 page tome details the sources of campaign contributions to members of Congress. Makinson is also the author of the "Follow the Money Handbook," a guide for reporters using computers to track political money.

Here is a transcript of today's session:

Mt. Rainier MD: It's pretty obvious that the politicians are not the least bit embarrassed about being fingered for huge contributions from private interests. They're calling it a 'freedom of speech' issue now, though doesn't seem there's much that's free abut it. What do you think will cause them to turn off the free flow of contributions?

Larry Makinson: If normal people -- ie, not just journalists -- really paid attention to who the "cash constituents" of their own members of Congress were, that would do a lot. Every time there's a vote in Congress, politicians think about what it will cost them. If they think voters are looking over their shoulder, they'll be much less likely to do an extra favor for a cash constituent.

Gaithersburg: Do you find it disturbing that the Democrats may have received money from the People's Republic of China, when at the same time Bill Clinton chose to lax security at the laboratories? If so, would that be considered treason, and bribery?

Also, do think that the party in control is more likely to NOT want fund-raising limits, since corporations and individuals are more likely to give money to those in power?

Larry Makinson: There hasn't been much publicity about this, but there's actually a lot more money coming from US corporations doing business in China than from China itself -- even if you believe there were direct contributions to the Democrats in 1996. The top donor to the Dems in 1996 was the head of Loral, the company that helped the Chinese perfect their rockets.

NEITHER party really wants to cut off soft money contributions (the ones with no limit). Both parties have become dependent on that money for a big part of their fund raising pie.

Bob Levey: George W. Bush has already attracted cascades of money, and he hasn't even announced for president yet. I'm not trying to be naive, but why would people give serious dough to the guy so soon? Trying to buy a favor? Trying to protect their hindquarters?

Larry Makinson: Trying to get behind a winner. At this stage, electability is by far the most important thing potential donors are looking at, and Bush is way out in front of the rest of the Republican crowd.

There's an axiom of money & politics, that Money follows Power. It also follows the presumption of power, which is why Bush is raising so much of it so soon.

Annandale, VA: Is the American system of political contributions unique among the world's democracies? For example, do the EU nations have the same caps and disclosure laws we do? Which democracy outside of the US would you say has the best, meaning fairest, system of political fund raising?

Larry Makinson: I don't know a whole lot about money in politics in other countries, except that for most of them, there is much less disclosure than we see in the US. When I talk with visiting journalists from other countries, they marvel at how easy it is to find out who's giving money to a Congressman or Senator. In a lot of other countries, the money flows directly to the parties, not so much to the candidates -- so it's a lot harder to track.

Warrenton, VA: Politicians constantly posture on this issue. Yet nothing gets done. What in your opinion is the best approach? Limits or open accounting?

Larry Makinson: You certainly need limits, simply because of human nature. What human would NOT want to do a favor for a donor who gave them a ton of money? Keeping the limits relatively low protects us from politicians being too friendly to their donors. You also need "open accounting" as you call it, or disclosure.

I think the best approach is for everyone to see what's happening -- both the contributions coming in, and the favors (if any) being given by elected officials.

Bob Levey: Let's say I have been a friend of Bill Bradley's for 35 years, and I just want to give him a personal gift in honor of his birthday. Can I write him a personal check for more than $1,000 under current law, even if I know (or suspect) that Dollar Bill will use the money to run for president? In other words, are there still circumstances when a gift to a politician is just a gift?

Larry Makinson: Good question. You can't write a question to Bill Bradley's campaign fund for more than $1,000. (He'd probably appreciate that as a birthday present!). If you wrote him a personal check just because he's an old pal, he could NOT use that for his campaign or he'd be breaking the law.

I actually don't know what the rules are for personal monetary gifts to someone running for federal office, especially if they're not now in office. Try the Federal Election Commission for real legal advice -- I'm no lawyer!

Bob Levey: This morning's headlines made me slam my coffee cup down on the breakfast table. The Republicans want to raise the $1,000 limit on campaign donations because inflation has made that ceiling too tough to live with (!). I don't mean this in a partisan way, but does this argument leave you as slack-jawed with amazement as it leaves me? Since when do we decide a constitutional issue on the basis of inflation?

Larry Makinson: Put it this way, whatever the buying power of $1,000 these days, VERY FEW normal people write checks so big they need a comma to separate all the numbers! In the 1998 elections, about 1/20th of 1% of the US population gave $1,000 or more to a federal candidate, party or PAC. If you raised the contribution limits, some of those people might write bigger checks -- which would make the politicians happy. But it would still exclude most Americans from the game at all.

Arlington, Va: How likely is the Supreme Court to take Mitch McConnell's request to look into the campaign funding issue and how likely is it that they will agree with him?

Larry Makinson: Interesting question. Who can say? The court should rightly balance the ability of politicians to run credible campaigns in this expensive age. But they've also got to be concerned about corruption, or the appearance of corruption. What weight they'll give to each of those two considerations is anyone's guess.

Arlington, VA: In light of the upcoming report from the National Gambling Impact Commission, what is your view on the influence of money from gambling interests?

Larry Makinson: Gambling interests have been one of the fastest-growing contributors to campaigns -- both federally and in the states.

The money they've poured into politics has certainly made politicians more sympathetic to loosening gambling laws at the state level, where most of the regulatory action is. The effect on the federal level is less clear. But with no organized opposition (except Indian gambling interests, who also give) the casinos are buying goodwill which will come in handy if Congress decides to regulate the industry more than it already is.

FFX, VA: Do you honestly think we will see any kind of reform in US Politics fund-raising. I mean, with the men & women who so desperately want & need that almighty campaign contribution bing in charge of reforming the process, isn't that a bit naive to think they will do anything substantial?

Larry Makinson: You've hit your head on one of the biggest problems with this system. However much members of Congress complain about the system, they know how to use it well enough to get elected. All the forces are lined up against their taking serious action to change the system, yet many members of Congress honestly DO want to clean it up. A minority, perhaps, but substantial numbers. Added to the problem is the dependence the parties have on keeping the big soft money donations rolling in. In short, reform will have an uphill battle on Capitol Hill -- as it also has had in every state capital across the nation.

Bob Levey: Your organization recently published lists of all donors to all recent major campaigns by name of donor. Do any donors, knowing that you do this, "hide" their donations in the names of their kids, their baby sitters, their pets?

Larry Makinson: We do know that the easiest way to exceed the $1,000 limit to a particular candidate is to enlist other family members in the cause. "Homemakers" are the source every year of tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions. Do they reflect the political views of their husbands? Who can say!
Kids are less frequent givers, but we still see a couple of million dollars a year from people who list their occupation as "student." As for pets, we keep scouring the contribution lists for names like Rover and Spot, but I haven't seen any yet...

Bob Levey: Old salts like me remember the mood after Watergate. Campaign finance reform passed, because of the sins of the Nixon people, and everyone inside and outside the Beltway was so hopeful. What happened exactly in the years since? Did big money just figure a way to gnarl the process?

Larry Makinson: Good point. Here's how so much of the game works in Washington. A crisis erupts that's so big normal people notice. Watergate is a great example. Congress acts because it knows it has to act. They pass a set of laws, the people are (relatively) happy and go about their business. As soon as the public at large loses interest, the powers that be begin to weigh in and the reforms, bit by bit, are watered down. What it will take for the cycle to end is enough public attention to make Congress act again.

FFX, VA: How can the public -those of us who vote that is, those who don't vote don't get to complain- find out exactly who our Rep.'s & Sen.'s are taking money from?

Larry Makinson: Glad you asked! Check out -- the website of the Center for Responsive Politics. We've got detailed (and graphic) contribution profiles for every member of Congress and all the major presidential candidates. You can see your members' top contributors (by organization), how much they got from key industries, where the money came from geographically -- even how good they were at disclosing the occupations & employers of their large donors. A wealth of information, all clickable from your home computer!

Bob Levey: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is running for President (maybe, probably--choose one). He has made a big name for himself by supporting campaign finance reform. Is this issue (and his stand on it) big enough to propel McCain into the White House?

Larry Makinson: At this stage, it's not a big enough issue to send him to the head of the pack of candidates -- and frankly, it probably never will. Further, it complicates his life since a lot of people will be expecting his presidential contributors list to conform to his image as Mr. Clean. So he's got a delicate balancing act ahead -- raising the money it takes to be competitive, while demonstrating to everyone that all that money isn't going to influence his political decisions.

Bob Levey: Half an hour remaining with our guest, Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics

West Orange, NJ: In this day and age, how does the American public still let congress get away with the blatant influence that money from "contributors" has on their votes? You would think that by now, we would all rise up and say "enough is enough!"; instead, it's like we just keep getting smacked in the face.

Larry Makinson: I think a big part of the problem is that people think they're powerless to change anything. You're not. One of the things we recommend on our website is that after you look at your representatives contributions, you send them an e-mail. Maybe there's something about their contribution profile you liked, maybe there's something you object to. Let 'em know. Maybe the most effective thing you can do is just send 'em a message and tell them you're watching. If members of Congress think the public isn't watching, they'll have little incentive to stop doing favors for contributors.

Bob Levey: Fair is fair: Where does the budget of the Center for Responsive Politics come from?

Larry Makinson: Thought you'd never ask... Our money comes primarily from foundations -- Ford Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, Joyce Foundation, Schumann Foundation, Carnegie Corp. of NY (a non-profit foundation). The full list is on our website. We also get some money from research fees for news organizations and others. (We charge $50 an hour for database research). And occasionally people actually send us money through the mail. We take no money from corporations, labor unions or interest groups.

FFX, VA: Does cover state & local seats as well as the national ones?

Larry Makinson: No, I wish we could. There IS a group that does work similar to ours at the state level, though. It's called the National Institute on Money in State Politics, they're based in Helena, Montana, and they have a website at

Nobody I know is tracking this stuff at the local level, so if you want to do it yourself you'll have the field to yourself! (We're working on an update to an old book of ours, by the way, called the Follow the Money Handbook. It gives how-to instructions on how to build a contributions database on your own!)

Rockville, MD: Where does your organization stand on the issue of labor unions -in particular AFL-CIO and the NEA- forcing the collection of dues of which large amounts of money goes to political parties -mainly the DNC- against the desires of a large but minority segment of the union members? This also seems to be a growing trend of Federal worker unions with donations going to solely one political party. I find a huge conflict of interest in this last case. Your thoughts please.

Larry Makinson: We're a research organization, not a lobbying group, so we don't actually have an issue on labor unions using union dues to fund their PACs. You're right on the facts, though. More than 90% of labor PAC money goes to Democrats, as it has ever since PACs were invented in the 1940s.

Federal workers so far in the 2000 presidential race have given most of their money to Al Gore's campaign. (Contributions over $200, that is -- the other's aren't itemized). But I'm not sure that federal employees as a whole are more inclined to favor one party over the other. Unions are, but not individual employees.

Bob Levey: Here are some statistics that Larry's group recently dished up. In the first six months of 1997, 106 organizations spent at least $1 million to lobby the federal government. During the same period, business, trade organizations, labor unions and interest groups spent more than $100 million a month to lobby Uncle Sam. Serious question: What does that money actually buy, beside a whole bunch of lumpy croissants?

Larry Makinson: Sometimes money buys laws. Sometimes it buys strategically placed commas, or phrases, inserted into laws. Sometimes it buys inaction -- it's actually easier & less expensive to BLOCK legislation than to pass it. Of course, all that money doesn't really guarantee that it will buy anything at all (other than those lumpy croissants). But they wouldn't keep spending it if they didn't think they were getting a return on the investment.

McLean, VA: Here's a question sort-of related to your response about each Senator's-Congressman's contributors. Is there a similar web site that shows their opinions on hot topics? A "report card" of sorts would be perfect, such as "Abortion--supports, Gun control--opposes" etc. Reading each person's sites doesn't really give this info directly. Thanks.

Larry Makinson: Very good point. The closest you can get about where candidates or officials stand on a whole range of issues is at This is the website of Vote Smart, a non-partisan group that sends questionnaires on policy to THOUSANDS of candidates every election, at both the federal and state level.

But what you're really asking for doesn't exist yet. And we're trying to build it. What we're going to try to put together on our site over the next few months is a real Do-It-Yourself Congressional Investigation Kit that lists contributions, members, issues and specific bills. If all that stuff was available on one site (or a combination of sites through links) you could actually do your own research on who's trying to influence Congress and what they're getting in return. Wouldn't that be great?!

FFX, VA: What about a "per household" limit to avoid Mr. Jones giving $1,000 in his name, his wife's, and each of their 3 kids? That is $5,000 worth of contributions given by one person. What about an age limit? No contributions from those not eligible-registered to vote?

Larry Makinson: Sorry about the household limit, but we have a family-friendly campaign finance law. The bigger your family the more you can give! As for age limits, the money is only supposed to come from people old enough to be acting on their own behalf. As a practical matter, though, it's not enforced by the Federal Election Commission, and there have been cases of people six MONTHS old contributing $1,000 to federal candidates. Either that kid was the next Einstein or somebody else played a big role in "assisting" him...

Bob Levey: Under the current Mack-truck-sized loopholes, "issue ads" are permissible, and the money to pay for them is not subject to the same limitations as direct contributions are. What are the prospects for seeing this loophole closed?

Larry Makinson: Issue ads are the loophole of the 90s. Because the ads are legally considered to be non-political, there's NO limits on how much you can give to pay for them, no pesky restrictions on WHO can give, and absolutely no requirement to DISCLOSE whose money it is. All of which make issue ads very popular for well-heeled donors who want to stay anonymous.

Candidates, however, often complain that these issue ads get in the way of their own message.

My own sense of the legislative outlook: I'd be surprised to see any real impediments to issue ads in the immediate future. Beyond 2000, action might happen.

FFX, VA: Since the incumbent has the definite advantage in fund-raising most of the time these days, what do you think about relaxing the limits on fund-raising-spending on challengers? This could help Mr. Everyday to get into office and get some of these career politicians out.

Larry Makinson: It's a tough question. Money buys visibility for candidates, and challengers can't usually get it any other way. But separate contribution limits for challengers? I don't know if that would even be constitutional.

Your question points out one of the big problems with tinkering with the current campaign finance system -- every little adjustment affects SOMEBODY, for better or worse. That's one reason Congress hasn't acted already on the issue.

Mt. Rainier MD: The difficulty with 'voting the bum out' is that both parties are in on the game. I can vote for a Republican or I can vote for a Democrat, but I probably can't vote for someone who isn't taking PAC money of one kind or another. And the third party candidates in MD do not look like serious contenders. No money.

Larry Makinson: You're right about one thing. Without money, no candidate these days is viable -- particularly if they're outside the Democratic or Republican parties. Third party candidates are at a great disadvantage even without looking at the money. If you include the money in the equation, you begin to understand why there's only one independent among the 535 members of Congress!

Bob Levey: Deep Throat is a legend for telling Bob Woodward during Watergate to follow the money. Yet many political reporters follow the rhetoric and the gossip instead. Why? Is it the TV-ization of reporting? Is it that following the money takes more work and time than a lot of editors want to devote?

Larry Makinson: You've put your finger on one of the big problems of money & politics reporting. It's complicated, it takes time, and real research takes both money and some expertise. There's another problem besides that: most of what happens in money & politics is perfectly legal, so it never reaches the threshold of "news."

Because of all this, it's becoming more obvious to me that the internet -- the web in particular -- has an important role to play in informing citizens about where politicians are getting their money. There's unlimited space, you don't have to meet the threshold of what's legal or illegal, news or not news. What we're trying to do on our website is to put this information up before the public directly. That said, I do wish that news organizations would give it the attention it deserves.

Bob Levey: I have never been influenced to vote for a candidate by an "attack ad" on TV, and I never will be. I suspect I'm not alone. So why do politicians raise and spend so much dough on ads that don't work? Why not just pass out a few leaflets? Why not just go to a few church suppers?

Larry Makinson: Politicians these days know that winning election is a science. The practitioners of the science are known as "political consultants" and if you've got enough money to pay them, and to air the ads they tell you are necessary to win, you can actually get elected a pretty fair percentage of the time.

The days of church suppers, and door-to-door leafletting are not completely gone, but they're not where the action is. The real action is in TV, radio and direct mail -- and they all cost money. Sad, but the truth.

Bob Levey: That's it for today. Many thanks to our excellent guest, Larry Makinson. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, June 15, at the same time, when we take a look at American high schools in light of the disaster at Columbine High School. How does a veteran principal see the issues and the dangers? How can additional Columbines be prevented? Our guest will be Janice Mills, principal of Laurel (Md.) High School. Also, don't miss the Friday anything-goes version of our show. It's called "Levey Live: Speaking Freely." It appears each Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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