The NY Times Essentially Accuses the White House of Taking Bribes, at Least of Selling Access

In my view this is huge news. The New York Times, in a front-page story on its web site, documents the strong correlation between (i) large gifts to the Obama campaign or Democratic Party and (ii) access to the White House. The author strongly suggests that the correlation between (i) and (ii) is also causal – that campaign donations are buying access to the White House, maybe even influencing public policies.

I’m usually skeptical when people try to claim such causal relationships from campaign donations. A more innocent explanation is often possible. That is, for instance, the donors likely have the same political views as the politicians to whom they are giving. The correlation could be the result of such like-mindedness, not necessarily a quid pro quo.

But this article gives further evidence – evidence that there really are some quid pro quos going on. Such evidence includes:

* A quote from Patrick Kennedy, the former House member from Rhode Island and the son of Ted Kennedy. Kennedy “donated $35,800 to an Obama re-election fund last fall while seeking administration support for a nonprofit venture, [and] said contributions were simply a part of ‘how this business works.'”

As the Times article notes, “I know that they [Democratic Party leaders] look at the reports,” [Kennedy] said, referring to records of campaign donations. “They’re my friends anyway, but it won’t hurt when I ask them for a favor if they don’t see me as a slouch.”

Kennedy told the Times reporter, “If you want to call it ‘quid pro quo,’ fine. At the end of the day, I want to make sure I do my part.”

* The Times article notes several instances where the timing of a donation is curious – that the donor made the donation immediately after or immediately before being granted a visit to the White House.

* The Times article also notes how, although the Obama campaign does not accept donations from lobbyists, on several occasions lobbyists accompanied big donors when the latter were granted a White House visit.

Conservatives frequently argue that if you want to minimize the influence of money in elections, decrease the overall scope of government. That is, if government has little influence over people’s lives, then influence peddlers will see little reason to give money to the politicians.

One anecdote in the Times article demonstrates that principle fabulously. The FCC has regulations that prevent children’s television shows from being essentially a vehicle to market consumer products to children. Viacom was the subject of a complaint accusing it of violating those regulations. Specifically, its show Zevo-3 features characters who previously appeared in the commercials of its marketing partner, Skechers shoes.

Viacom enlisted the help of Antoinette C. Bush. Bush is the step-daughter of Vernon Jordan and the cousin of White House advisor Valerie Jarrett. She contributed the maximum legal amount to the Obama Victory Fund, $35,800. Her husband Dwight Bush donated the same amount. They once hosted a $17,900 a plate fundraiser for Obama, at which President Obama appeared. 

Ms. Bush wrote a letter to the FCC for Viacom, making arguments that seemingly any citizen could make. As the ending sentences of the Times article noted,

Ms. Bush argued that the cartoon show, which features characters with special powers who previously appeared in Skechers commercials, intentionally distances itself from the footwear Skechers sells.

“In particular,” she wrote, “the characters in Zevo-3 do not derive any powers from their shoes, do not go out of their way to refer to their shoes and do not indicate that their shoes bear any relation to their roles on the program.”