Montana Viewpoint: In politics, it’s a ‘wink and a nod’

Jim Elliott

Political wisdom; “Never put in writing what you can communicate by speaking, and never speak when you can make your point with a wink and a nod.”

Which is worse, Russian interference in American elections or secret American special-interest groups doing the same? Well, of course it’s the Russians because the special interest groups are at least American not to mention bread and butter to the politicians of one political party or another.

The reason why the latter are not the subject of congressional investigation is that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. I’m sure politicians feel that at least they have some control over the American outfits, but I suspect that the American outfits have more control over the politicians.

Many are worried that the Trump campaign may have “colluded” with the Russians, but they seem less worried about the ability of American special interest groups to successfully collude—in an equally undocumented way—with any elected American official.

If you look at the financial contributions of these groups to members of Congress you will no doubt be shocked to see that these groups give big money to those senators and representatives who sit on committees that oversee and regulate that special interest group. You can find those numbers by industry and members of Congress or the Senate at opensecrets.org, which makes it their business to investigate these things.

Basically, the way politicians have to finance their campaigns lends itself to corruption by the very fact that politicians, in general, do not want to alienate big donors. If you consider that fully one third of the waking hours of federal politicians is spent raising money, you can understand why. I categorize major political contributions into two groups; those to politicians who already reflect the contributors’ beliefs, and those to politicians who can be talked into reflecting those beliefs. And that latter is the wink and the nod.

Recall that one description of an “honest” Politician is that one who, once he is bought, stays bought.

The ways that big business, political organizations, and people of influence can get money to the politicians of their choice are as numerous as they can be shady. We are fortunate in Montana to have a law that requires political contributions to be reportable and reported, and which limits who can make them and for what amount.

There are hypothetically enforceable safeguards in federal campaign finance, which in the scope of things one might call mere window dressing, and there are plenty of ways around them. The irony is that the mystery contributors don’t want the public to know who they are, but they damn sure want the politicians to know.

The point is, do we want our elected officials to be responsible to the American people or to the titans of industry who Teddy Roosevelt called the “malefactors of great wealth”?

The Brennan Center for Justice (brennancenter.org) is dedicated to exposing the nefarious ways that money is funded to political campaigns and working towards the end that such campaigns be publicly funded. Yes, that means taxpayer dollars, and I am ready for it.

To date, fourteen states have some sort of program for publicly financed campaigns that have been employed with varying success. One study found that in Arizona and Maine it has increased the ability of challengers to beat incumbents. Whatever amount of success these programs have had is all to the good, but not good enough.

The whole system of campaign finance and spending needs to change, but I am not optimistic.

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.