The Senate’s Dodd Problem


MPAA head lobbyist Chris Dodd threatened Congress and the President last week, suggesting that lawmakers should remember that they’ve been bought, and that if they want to continue to enjoy their piece of the entertainment industry’s largesse, they should mind their leash:

“Candidly, those who count on quote ‘Hollywood‘ for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who’s going to stand up for them when their job is at stake,” Dodd told Fox News. “Don’t ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don’t pay any attention to me when my job is at stake.”

The corruption here is blatant — Chris Dodd thinks that his industry’s contributions should be able to purchase congressional results. This isn’t just money in politics buying access, or systemic corruption, or some theoretical statistical link — Chris Dodd is threatening the Congress with his industry money.

That money buys votes and affects public policy is nothing new. Boehner wasn’t handing out tobacco industry checks on the House Floor in 1995 as party favors, after all. But donors’ influence over specific public policy decisions are usually left unspoken, or at least not publicly aired. Chris Dodd’s sense of influence entitlement has strayed outside the bounds of normal Washington discourse, and perhaps thankfully so. Dodd is doing a fantastic time of demonstrating everything that’s wrong with the system.

On top of the sweetheart mortgage treatment Dodd enjoyed as Senator, he parlayed his position as former Senator to become head of the MPAA, where his connections won him a high salary and influential position. His public pledge to forswear lobbying and related revolving door restrictions weren’t even a speed bump on Dodd’s path through the revolving door, since directing a team of lobbyists and managing political contributions don’t count as lobbying under the law. (Common sense, of course, dictates otherwise — he’s a lobbyist.) Cashing in on connections is often par for the course, as is avoiding lobbying disclosure — both are de rigueur for former Members of Congress looking for lucrative careers.

But as MPAA head Dodd’s signature legislative effort (SOPA and PIPA) ran off the rails, Dodd decided to flex his campaign finance muscles, and threatened his former colleagues to get in line.

And that’s where things get weird.

Because Senate Democrats have repeatedly told us that they are interested in protecting the integrity of our elections, and that public service and representation should be protected from the undue influence of money in politics. In fact, here’s Senator Chris Dodd, talking about the Citizens United decision:

 “If corporations — foreign as well as domestic — are allowed even greater and more direct influence over our elections, our democracy as we know it will cease to exist. I won’t stand for that. I urge my colleagues, and the American people, to join me in defense of democracy by supporting this amendment and other interim steps to mitigate the damage done by this decision.”

Senator Dodd was concerned about corporations having greater direct influence over our elections, but as MPAA head, Dodd feels empowered to dictate public policy to elected representatives, and strongarm them into passing it.

But this shouldn’t be awkward just for Dodd.

In his remarks, he’s both threatening and imploring his former colleagues to stay on his side, and to understand that it’s his job on the line. In other words, we paid you off, and if you want more industry money, you better toe the line. And by the way, we’re friends.

This should be extraordinarily awkward for the rest of the Senate, and especially Dodd’s colleagues.  Remember, Dodd was first elected to the Senate in 1980, and had various leadership and committee positions throughout his career. This isn’t a one off backbench house Member. If a Senator with three decades of tenure behind him can do an about face and use campaign cash to dictate public policy, what about the rest of the Senate?

It’s shocking to see Senators who usually rail against money in politics ignore the public threats from their former colleague. I haven’t seen any public response at all from sitting Senators, while the public perception of the institution is taking yet another hit. While a public White House petition is calling for an investigation of Dodd, the rest of the Senate (and House) have just quietly ignored his threats, at least in public.

That shouldn’t be enough. If the former colleague of all these Democratic Senators is going to accuse them of being bought, and threaten to withhold support, the least they can do is deny the influence of the MPAA’s money on their actions. If it’s not okay to publicly bully Congress with industry money, then somebody should say so.

And if we don’t act, this is only going to get worse. All these outside influencers now have tools at their disposal to credibly threaten to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars supporting or opposing candidates, while covering their tracks, if they so choose. If a Senator who has publicly committed to protecting the integrity of representation is willing to bully Members with his industry cash, we can expect this is just a small piece of the action.

We should pass lobbying reform, get real disclosure for super PACs, strengthen ethics enforcement bodies, and follow the money as best we can. And maybe we should be glad when the influential have such hubris that they tell us what they’re really up to.