Asked whether political contributors “buy government,” Don Adams, a former Texas state senator who made up to a million dollars lobbying the Legislature in 1999, said, “They haven’t bought government; they’ve just scared it into doing what they want.”
That enlightenment comes from Too Much Money Is Not Enough: Big Money and Political Power in Texas, a primer on money, the perennial weed of Texas politics.
Few Texans can match veteran political reporter Sam Kinch’s command of the subject. His earlier work, Texas Under a Cloud, chronicled the 1971 Sharpstown Scandal, in which two legislators were convicted of taking bribes from a Houston financier. In the aftermath, voters threw out half the incumbents. Kinch’s book helped spur the 1973 campaign finance reforms.
His new book, co-written with freelance writer Anne Marie Kilday, wastes no time debating if special-interest money corrupts the system. Instead, 15 insiders describe how this happens. One of the insiders is Kinch himself, who contributes 50 pages, written in a folksy, first-person style. Readers will have blown through most of his breezy account before they realize that Kinch has quietly fed them a mass of campaign finance statistics that document how far democracy in Texas falls short of its ideals. Among the details he reveals:
In 20 years the cost of Texas statewide and legislative races has quintupled to $121 million;Half of this money comes from just 629 individuals and PACs that contributed at least $25,000 per election cycle; Incumbents outspend challengers 2 to 1, with the biggest spender winning at least 90 percent of the time; House members raise 80 percent of their funds outside their districts, with half coming from just 10 business zip codes; and Voter participation is at near-record lows.
In the Belly of the Beast
The other insider voices belong to Don Adams and 13 other former legislators interviewed by Kilday. They provide eye-opening admissions of the extent to which money influences Texas politics. (Half of those interviewed by Kilday followed the revolving door back into the Capitol as lobbyists on behalf of a Who’s Who of business interests, chalking up a combined 1999 lobby income of up to $2.3 million dollars.)
The big-money scare factor, as described by Don Adams, is alluded to by former legislator Robert Earley. “There were times when members of the Texas Legislature would come up to me on the House floor and say, ‘Don’t you know who you are screwing on that vote?’ he recalled. “It never was, ‘You’re screwing voters,’ it was ‘You’re screwing a money man.’ And it changed votes.”
“If you [an average citizen] call up with a personal problem, which is called constituent work, they’ll get around to that eventually,” ex-legislator Paul Ragsdale explained. “But when it comes to public policy, having an influence there, you can forget that-that belongs to contributors.”
Parker McCollough, an ex-representative-turned-energy lobbyist, says money played a decisive role in the passage of pro-business liability laws in 1995. According to McCollough, Texans for Lawsuit Reform money allowed developer Michael Galloway to take a key seat from incumbent Senator Carl Parker, who had close ties to trial lawyers. Allowing money to dictate public policy is not bad, McCollough says, “as long as you’ve got a Legislature of elected officials who have to stand on the ballot every two years or four years.”
Putting a different spin on the same phenomenon, revolving-door lobbyist A.R. “Babe” Schwartz says that the average voter does not realize that when Texans for Lawsuit Reform head Dick Weekley gives $100,000 to a senator, “Hell, that state senator doesn’t have a vote anymore-Weekley has a vote…. Anybody who accepts $100,000 from a PAC belongs, body and soul, to that PAC.”
TOP PAC DONORS
TO TEXAS POLITICIANS IN 1998:
Texans for Lawsuit Reform $1,000,000
Vinson & Elkins law firm $635,753
TX Automobile Dealers Assoc. $632,149
Southwestern Bell $594,129
TX Assoc. of Realtors $566,620
TOP INDIVIDUAL DONORS
TO TEXAS POLITICIANS IN 1998:
Perry Homes, Houston $765,275
Kinetic Concepts (hospital beds)
San Antonio $456,784
Diversified financiers, Dallas $405,500
Lonnie ‘Bo’ Pilgrim
Pilgrim’s Pride poultry
Sterling Group (chemicals)
Some ex-legislators suggest that dependency on big donors takes a cumulative psychological toll on politicians. “The process of asking [for money] … forces you to spend a lot of time with the people who give you money,” says ex-Representative Alec Rhodes. “I think there is a human tendency … people like to say what other folks want to hear … it’s hard to be controversial when you are trying to fight them for money.”
Ex-representative Bob Davis had a different take when Kilday asked if money ever affected his vote. Davis recalled a conversation with Durward Curlee, who was lobbying for permission for S&Ls to sell insurance. “I looked at him and said, ‘Curlee, I’m chairman of the Insurance Committee and the insurance [lobbyists] have been my friends ever since I’ve been running for public office…. These people are my friends, they’ve contributed to me and supported me every time I’ve run…. I don’t know that that was exclusively money in that sense; but it was an issue that I already had taken a position on back a long time ago, and I wasn’t going to change it. But it was one where I knew I had received considerable contributions from the insurance guys.”
Davis’ confession stands out from the pack. Many of the interviewees sound as if they had more moral fortitude than some of their colleagues. Yet ex-legislator Bruce Gibson, a lobbyist who doles out PAC money for Reliant Energy, told Kilday that he has never had a member turn down a contribution.
Having worked both sides of the revolving door, Gibson says lawmakers and special interests are co-dependents who use each other. Calling politicians’ aggressive fundraising drives a “cattle call,” Gibson says that candidates do not even bother to get permission to list special interests as “sponsors” of their fundraisers at the Austin Club. The “sponsor” then receives a bill for the event unless it has the cojones to ask the politician to remove its name from the list.
The Road to Reform
Kinch, Kilday, and Austin-based Campaigns for People have provided an invaluable public service. Nothing else comes close to Too Much Money Is Not Enough in documenting how Texans get sold down river by the co-dependency of politicians and big donors. Unfortunately, Kinch refuses to take this powerful elite to task. “I have too much respect for the practitioners of Texas politics, including those in the lobby, to engage in a diatribe,” he writes. Instead, he seems to lay all the blame on the public: “Given the public’s disinterest in elections and its reluctance to demand change, I still think the people of Texas get better government than we truly deserve.”
Perhaps just as politicians who depend on special-interest financing develop sympathy for their donors, reporters develop sympathies with sources who provide the inside scoop. In contrast to Kinch, Chuck Lewis of the D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity thrashes the legislative and lobbying elite in his forward to this book, calling them a “mercenary milieu of mendacity”-for lying about money’s corrosive influence on politics.)
Although Kinch is a self-described “optimist,” he more often sounds as if the process of having seen too many limited reforms come and go has jaded him. His proposals to rein in money’s influence on Texas politics focus almost exclusively on improved disclosure to reveal who gave what to whom. While these reforms are badly needed, Texas also must limit how much money wealthy donors can contribute to politicians.
Kinch’s emphasis on improved disclosure is, however, all that we can hope that the Texas Legislature will tackle in the near term. A House interim committee on campaign finance reform recently concluded that, “Texas election law related to the financing of campaigns has loopholes which deny the public the capability to determine the source of campaign funds.”
When the Legislature finally is forced to face up to these loopholes, once again we may have a jaded Sam Kinch to thank for nudging us further down the long road to reform.
Andrew Wheat is research director at Texans for Public Justice.
Note: Too Much Money Is Not Enough can be ordered from distributor Little Leaf Press, 1-877-548-2431. Also see www.littleleafpress.com. Audio excerpts of interviews with some ex-legislators will be available by January 15 on the Campaigns for People web page: www.campaignsforpeople.org.