Mr. Sean goes to Washington

Meet the new boss (depressingly similar to the old boss)

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This article will be depressing. It takes a bunch of grim facts you probably already knew and connects them. Also, it’s long, excessively so (which is why I divided it into two pieces). It’s just a miserable, miserable experience. That said, there’s good news at the end. Not the end of this half — which concludes in a manner both bleak and abrupt — but of the part that appears next week. If you stick it out, you will be rewarded. Is the reward worth all the stick leading up to the carrot? Probably not. Let’s dive in, gang!

The New Yorker featured a fine piece on life in the U.S. Senate that included a quote from Senator Tom Harkin — who spoke at my commencement after rumors of an address by Nelson Mandela proved untrue, the first of many post-graduation disappointments I would encounter — noting raising money takes up of “any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more.” Harkin has it easy. He’s a Senator, so unlike a congressman he only needs to face an election every six years. Plus Harkin’s won reelection five times (he claimed over 60 percent of the vote in 2008) and chairs multiple committees, easily meeting Ron Burgundy’s standards for being kind of a big deal. What’s this translate to?

1. It’s way easier for Harkin to raise money than most pols, since people know he has clout and figure he’s gonna stick around for a bit (based on the fact he’ll soon complete his third decade there and all).

2. Raising money’s less pressing for him anyway, since he has six years between elections and obliterated all opposition last time out — if anybody can play hooky for an afternoon without winding up reading the help wanteds, it’s him.

Most of the fresh blood in D.C. come 2011 will be House newbies. They’ll have just arrived in Washington and have no idea what’s going on, except that there’s an election less than two years away. They need money and they need it now. Because no matter how anti-Washington candidates claim to be, they long to stick around. They may want to stay because they genuinely believe that by being in office they can help America or just dig that sweet elected official health care coverage; regardless, they must remain. That means that stuff like getting to know other members of congress, really examining the legislation that comes across their desks instead of blindly following whatever their party leaders decree, or even just studying the issues a little so they can offer informed opinions on complex matters can wait, because they have to get that paper, playa.

That’s the paradox of sweeping out the incumbents: you tend to replace them with people who are total puppets. The new arrivals usually have a few pet causes they feel very strongly about (though even these they likely haven’t thought through in terms of specifics that can be accomplished) and then there’s a lot of stuff they’re completely unprepared for…and they have no time for preparation because they need money. As a result they tend to follow party leadership pretty blindly, which is fan-freakin’-tastic because what our nation needs now is more unthinking partisanship and Newt Gingrich/ Nancy Pelosi figures.

But there’s no time to consider this now, because again, money. While every politician makes noise about all the small donations they acquire, there’s only so much time in the day so at some point it’s natural to stop seeking out those 50 buck donations and do one of two things:

1. Dip into your personal fortune to pay your own tab. This approach has been adopted by folks like Michael Bloomberg in NYC, Jon Corzine in New Jersey, Ross Perot when he made his attempts at the presidency, that ex-husband of Arianna Huffington who turned out to be bisexual in California, etc. The downside to this is that it requires having a personal fortune in the first place, plus the people who possess them have an unfortunate tendency to become creepily paternalistic, pathetically out of touch, mildly insane, and married to Arianna Huffington. That leaves…

2. Check out the corporations. (And, to a lesser extent, unions.)

I don’t think it’s ever been difficult for a massive corporation to make its feelings heard — was there really a time when John D. Rockefeller sat around with Andrew Carnegie, moping, “If only someone would notice us…” — but it’s surely a golden age for it now. The Supreme Court’s eliminated pretty much all the already weak restrictions on corporate dollars in the political process, even making it so corporations increasingly don’t need to be linked to their handiwork, meaning that a “West Virginians for a Free and Beautiful West Virginia” movement can be entirely paid for by a Wall Street firm that’s decided to invest in strip mining. This influx of increasingly unaccounted for money has created some controversy, with allegations that organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are funneling in large amounts of foreign funds. There’s no way of me knowing if this is true and in the interests of being impartial I will summarize the defense typically used by the Chamber:

1. We solicit and accept large amounts of foreign money.

2. This foreign money is kept apart from the money we actually spend on elections.

3. Ta-da!

But let’s ignore this — Fox News Channel’s two biggest shareholders are a converted Australian and one of the biggest supporters of the Manhattan mosque, so it’s possible to pull off balancing acts. Let’s say all the money is coming in from All-American corporations, run by All-American guys and gals. And let’s also acknowledge that the folks running corporations have a disproportionate influence in the country — when was the last time you and some of your buddies felt so strongly about an issue so you banded together to launch a massive TV blitz in a state where you don’t live? — but shrug this off too. Is the fact that we have a government run by a group of overwhelmed beggars really a problem?

Check in next week for the surprise answer! (Hint: yes, but it involves cocaine and prostitutes, so should still be some pleasant surprises.)

Mr. Sean goes to Washington appears each Thursday.

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