One of the most embarrassing aspects of U.S. politics is politicians who deny that money has any impact on what they do. For instance, Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania’s notoriously fracking-friendly former governor, got $1.7 million from oil and gas companies but assured voters that “The contributions don’t affect my decisions.” If you’re trying to get people to vote for you, you can’t tell them that what they want doesn’t matter.
This pose is also popular with a certain prominent breed of pundits, who love to tell us “Don’t Follow the Money” (New York Times columnist David Brooks), or “Money does not buy elections” (Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner on public radio’s Marketplace), or “Money won’t buy you votes” (Yale Law School professor Peter H. Schuck in the Los Angeles Times).
Meanwhile, 85 percent of Americans say we need to either “completely rebuild” or make “fundamental changes” to the campaign finance system. Just 13 percent think “only minor changes are necessary,” less than the 18 percent of Americans who believe they’ve been in the presence of a ghost.
So we’ve decided that it would be useful to collect examples of actual politicians acknowledging the glaringly obvious reality. Here’s a start; I’m sure there must be many others, so if you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments or email me. I’d also love to speak directly to current or former politicians who have an opinion about it.
• “I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me. And that’s a broken system.” — Donald Trump in 2015.
• “[T]his is what’s wrong. [Donald Trump] buys and sells politicians of all stripes … he’s used to buying politicians.” — Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in 2015.
“Now [the United States is] just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congressmembers. … So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors …” — Jimmy Carter, former president, in 2015. (Thanks to Sam Sacks.)
• “[T]he millionaire class and the billionaire class increasingly own the political process, and they own the politicians that go to them for money. … we are moving very, very quickly from a democratic society, one person, one vote, to an oligarchic form of society, where billionaires would be determining who the elected officials of this country are.” — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in 2015. (Thanks to Robert Wilson in comments below.) Sanders has also said many similar things, such as “I think many people have the mistaken impression that Congress regulates Wall Street. … The real truth is that Wall Street regulates the Congress.” (Thanks to ND, via email.)
• “You have to go where the money is. Now where the money is, there’s almost always implicitly some string attached. … It’s awful hard to take a whole lot of money from a group you know has a particular position then you conclude they’re wrong [and] vote no.” — Vice President Joe Biden in 2015.
• “[T]oday’s whole political game, run by an absurdist’s nightmare of moneyed elites, is ridiculous – a game in which corporations are people and money is magically empowered to speak; candidates trek to the corporate suites and secret retreats of the rich, shamelessly selling their political souls.” – Jim Hightower, former Democratic agricultural commissioner of Texas, 2015. (Thanks to CS, via email.)
• “People tell me all the time that our politics in Washington are broken and that multimillionaires, billionaires and big corporations are calling all the shots … it’s hard not to agree.” — Russ Feingold, three-term Democratic senator from Wisconsin, in 2015 announcing he’s running for the Senate again. (Thanks to CS, via email.)
• “I can legally accept gifts from lobbyists unlimited in number and in value … As you might guess, what results is a corruption of the institution of Missouri government, a corruption driven by big money in politics.” — Missouri State Sen. Rob Schaaf, 2015. (Thanks to DK, via email.)
• “When you start to connect the actual access to money, and the access involves law enforcement officials, you have clearly crossed a line. What is going on is shocking, terrible.” – James E. Tierney, former attorney general of Maine, in 2014.
• “Allowing people and corporate interest groups and others to spend an unlimited amount of unidentified money has enabled certain individuals to swing any and all elections, whether they are congressional, federal, local, state … Unfortunately and rarely are these people having goals which are in line with those of the general public. History well shows that there is a very selfish game that’s going on and that our government has largely been put up for sale.” – John Dingell, 29-term Democratic congressman from Michigan, in 2014 just before he retired.
• “When some think tank comes up with the legislation and tells you not to fool with it, why are you even a legislator anymore? You just sit there and take votes and you’re kind of a feudal serf for folks with a lot of money.” — Dale Schultz, 32-year Republican state legislator in Wisconsin and former state Senate Majority Leader, in 2013 before retiring rather than face a primary challenger backed by Americans for Prosperity. Several months later Schultz said: “I firmly believe that we are beginning in this country to look like a Russian-style oligarchy where a couple of dozen billionaires have basically bought the government.”
• “I was directly told, ‘You want to be chairman of House Administration, you want to continue to be chairman.’ They would actually put in writing that you have to raise $150,000. They still do that — Democrats and Republicans. If you want to be on this committee, it can cost you $50,000 or $100,000 — you have to raise that money in most cases.” — Bob Ney, five-term Republican congressman from Ohio and former chairman of the House Administration Committee who pleaded guilty to corruption charges connected to the Jack Abramoff scandal, in 2013. (Thanks to ratpatrol in comments below.)
• “The alliance of money and the interests that it represents, the access that it affords to those who have it at the expense of those who don’t, the agenda that it changes or sets by virtue of its power is steadily silencing the voice of the vast majority of Americans … The truth requires that we call the corrosion of money in politics what it is – it is a form of corruption and it muzzles more Americans than it empowers, and it is an imbalance that the world has taught us can only sow the seeds of unrest.” – Secretary of State John Kerry, in 2013 farewell speech to the Senate.
• “American democracy has been hacked. … The United States Congress … is now incapable of passing laws without permission from the corporate lobbies and other special interests that control their campaign finances.” — Al Gore, former vice president, in his 2013 book The Future. (Thanks to anon in comments below.)
• “I think it is because of the corrupt paradigm that has become Washington, D.C., whereby votes continually are bought rather than representatives voting the will of their constituents. … That’s the voice that’s been missing at the table in Washington, D.C. — the people’s voice has been missing.” — Michele Bachmann, four-term Republican congresswoman from Minnesota and founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, in 2011.
• “I will begin by stating the sadly obvious: Our electoral system is a mess. Powerful financial interests, free to throw money about with little transparency, have corrupted the basic principles underlying our representative democracy.” — Chris Dodd, five-term Democratic senator from Connecticut, in 2010 farewell speech to the Senate. (Thanks to RO, via email.)
• “Across the spectrum, money changed votes. Money certainly drove policy at the White House during the Clinton administration, and I’m sure it has in every other administration too.” — Joe Scarborough, four-term Republican congressman from Florida and now co-host of “Morning Joe,” in the 1990s. (Thanks to rrheard in comments below.)
• “We are the only people in the world required by law to take large amounts of money from strangers and then act as if it has no effect on our behavior.” — Barney Frank, 16-term Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, in the 1990s. (Thanks to RO, via email.)
“… money plays a much more important role in what is done in Washington than we believe. … [Y]ou’ve got to cozy up, as an incumbent, to all the special interest groups who can go out and raise money for you from their members, and that kind of a relationship has an influence on the way you’re gonna vote. … I think we have to become much more vigilant on seeing the impact of money … I think it’s wrong and we’ve got to change it.” — Mitt Romney, then the Republican candidate running against Ted Kennedy for Senate, in 1994. (Thanks to LA, via email.)
• “There is no question in the world that money has control.” — Barry Goldwater, 1964 GOP Presidential nominee, just before retiring from the Senate in 1986.
• ”When these political action committees give money, they expect something in return other than good government. … Poor people don’t make political contributions. You might get a different result if there were a poor-PAC up here.” — Bob Dole, former Republican Senate Majority Leader and 1996 GOP Presidential nominee, in 1983.
• “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” — Jesse Unruh, Speaker of the California Assembly in the 1960s and California State Treasurer in the 1970s and 80s.
• “I had a nice talk with Jack Morgan [i.e., banker J.P. Morgan, Jr.] the other day and he seemed more worried about [Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rexford] Tugwell’s speech than about anything else, especially when Tugwell said, ‘From now on property rights and financial rights will be subordinated to human rights.’ … The real truth of the matter is, as you and I know, that a financial element in the larger centers has owned the Government ever since the days of Andrew Jackson … The country is going through a repetition of Jackson’s fight with the Bank of the United Stated — only on a far bigger and broader basis.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1933 letter to Edward M. House. (Thanks to LH, via email.)
• “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government, owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.” — 1912 platform of the Progressive Party, founded by former president Theodore Roosevelt. (Thanks to LH, via email.)
• “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” — Mark Hanna, William McKinley’s 1896 presidential campaign manager and later senator from Ohio, in 1895.
Again, please leave other good examples in the comments or email them to me at any time — I’ll keep updating this indefinitely. I’m looking specifically for working politicians (rather than pundits or activists) who describe a tight linkage between money and political outcomes (as opposed to something vaguer).