The Democratic Party Pay-to-Play Scheme That Keeps Corporations in Charge of Public Policy

Congress is not just corrupt because of human nature. It's also corrupt by Democratic Party design.

Two recent pieces caught my eye, the first because it tells an obvious story about Amazon, the labor movement and our happily corrupted Congress, and the second because it reveals the structural Why behind our happily corrupted Congress.

Bottom line: Congress isn't corrupt because that's the nature of man or political institutions. Congress is also as corrupt as it is because congressional leaders design it that way and create incentives to make sure it stays that way.

Democrat Opposed to the PRO Act Was Showered With Cash From Amazon Executives

The first piece comes via Sam Knight writing at Truthout. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) is a landmark bill that protects and expands unions' right to organize, and in a way that's unprecedented in modern times, returns the union/corporation playing field to something closer to level. Legislation like this hasn't been viable for decades.

The PRO Act has passed the House and needs only Senate approval before it goes to a (so-far supportive) President Biden. The Senate whip count is 46 Democrats/Independents in favor and only four opposed. (Independent Angus King became a cosponsor on April 15.)

Those still opposed include:

  • Mark Warner (VA)

  • Joe Manchin (WV)

  • Mark Kelly (AZ)

  • Krysten Sinema (AZ)

All four of these Democrats are from right-to-work states. Right-to-work laws would be outlawed by the PRO Act, so corporate proponents of those laws are naturally applying as much pressure as they can to keep their sweet deal going. "Pressure" often means money.

Of course, the filibuster is likely to be deployed by Senate Republicans — unless the filibuster is removed, which is where Biden's questionable support comes in — but if that happens, those four Democrats are all that stands between primal corporate fears and landmark union legislation.

With this in mind, consider the flood of contributions coming to Mark Warner, who has emerged as one of the leading Democratic proponents of Amazon corporate policy, including (apparently) its anti-union policy, in the Senate.

From Knight's piece:

Warner was particularly vocal [about Amazon's announced Virginia HQ2 campus], releasing a statement immediately after the announcement saying that he was “really excited” about the Crystal City plans. Later that morning, he appeared at a Yahoo Finance summit where he fist-pumped when the publication’s editor-in-chief, Andy Serwer, brought up the HQ2 news.

“This process is probably the most unique kind of economic development, where the whole county is chasing it,” Warner said, hinting that the HQ2 announcement would likely be followed by news from Virginia Tech University, a publicly run institution, about the establishment of a new campus in northern Virginia, which would be built specifically to complement the Amazon facility. Warner then conceded, when asked by Serwer, that he wasn’t aware how much these Amazon developments would cost the public. “I’ve not actually gone through all the particulars of the announcement,” he said. “I’m sure Amazon extracted a good deal for themselves.”

The cost would soon become clear. Three months later, in February 2019, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law a bill that gave $750 million in subsidies to Amazon. The subsidy total wasn’t as much as those offered by other jurisdictions vying for HQ2, but Virginia’s deal was made sweeter to Amazon by the state’s union-busting “right-to-work” laws.

Warner's support, or the frame of mind that created that support, was encouraged and rewarded by a flood of donation, not just from Amazon workers, but Amazon executives:

[I]n June 2019, Virginia Tech unveiled its plans to build a $1 billion campus, with up to $250 million coming from the subsidy package approved by the state legislature and Northam. Heralding the news, at the Virginia Tech press conference, was Senator Warner, fresh off of a three-week stretch in which he was showered with campaign cash from Amazon executives.

The first donation to roll into Warner’s coffers came on May 17, 2019. Amazon’s Vice President of Public Policy Shannon Kellogg gave Warner $1,000. Four days later, Amazon Senior Vice President Doug Herrington, who is in charge of “North America Consumer,” maxed out on donations to Warner, giving him $5,600, with half earmarked for Warner’s primary, and the other half slated to go to his general election campaign fund. Warner was not facing a primary opponent at the time of the gift. He never would. His primary contest was canceled altogether.

Three days after Herrington’s money came, Warner’s campaign was blessed with $2,800 from another vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, who was described by CNBC as a top lieutenant to Jay Carney, in an article which said that Amazon public policy views influence peddling as “watering the flowers” with the goal of cultivating “a well-tended ‘garden’ of pro-Amazon policymakers, from state governors and senators down to local officials and economic development teams.” The same day that Huseman gave to Warner, David Levy, the vice president of Amazon Web Services, gave Warner $1,500. Six days later, on May 30, 2019, Carney himself donated $2,900 to Warner’s campaign war chest.

The same day that Carney donated to Warner’s reelection campaign, Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky gave the senator $2,800. The following day, Jeff Wilke, then-Amazon CEO of worldwide consumer business, matched the $5,600 maximum donation given by Herrington. Olsavsky and Wilke were, alongside Carney, part of Amazon’s S-Team, which was described by CNBC as “the 18 most senior executives who work closely with [CEO Jeff Bezos].” Then on June 8, two days before Warner spoke at the Virginia Tech HQ2 campus press conference, David Clark, who now holds Wilke’s old position, gave Warner the $5,600 maximum. The three-week “flower watering” left Warner — who had no primary challenger and wasn’t facing a competitive general election component — with $27,800 from the top tiers of Amazon’s corporate structure.

It's not just the dollars themselves; these executives are voting their intentions, even if the amounts are small. That lesser support translates to even greater support when Amazon's corporate lobbyists — directed by those same executives — dispense the much more significant amounts contained in their corporate PAC warchests.

The Democratic Party's Pay-To-Play Scheme

But Democrats in Congress aren't this corrupt because humans are easily corrupted. They are this corrupt because the Party forces them to collect corporate cash as fast as they can if they want to rise to Party leadership or keep seats on key Party-controlled committees.

From a hard-to-find 2011 Washington Spectator article by Thomas Ferguson (archived here) on Democratic Party's systemic corruption, we find this:

Under the new rules for the 2008 election cycle, the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] asked rank-and-file members to contribute $125,000 in dues and to raise an additional $75,000 for the party. Subcommittee chairpersons must contribute $150,000 in dues and raise an additional $100,000. Members who sit on the most powerful committees … must contribute $200,000 and raise an additional $250,000. Subcommittee chairs on power committees and committee chairs of non-power committees must contribute $250,000 and raise $250,000. The five chairs of the power committees must contribute $500,000 and raise an additional $1 million. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn, and Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel must contribute $800,000 and raise $2.5 million. The four Democrats who serve as part of the extended leadership must contribute $450,000 and raise $500,000, and the nine Chief Deputy Whips must contribute $300,000 and raise $500,000. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must contribute a staggering $800,000 and raise an additional $25 million. —Marian Currinder, Money in the House (2008)

House Democrats are running a pay-to-play scheme entirely out in the open, and no one is exempt. Each House member, even the youngest of the freshman class, are instantly on the hook to the Party for $200,000, to be paid either immediately or on the installment plan.

The price goes up for subcommittee chairs (of which there are many); these people must contribute $250,000 or lose their modestly elevated positions.

To moved to the level above that costs House members $500,000. The power committee chairs are on the hook for $1,500,000 — that's over a million dollars raised just for the Party — and Nancy Pelosi herself must contribute a "staggering" $25,800,000 to be eligible for her position as leader.

This is what it means to be a Democrat in the House, by Democratic leaders' chosen rules.

The Corruption Is Intentional

There's only one conclusion to be drawn from all this — the corruption in Congress is structural and intentional. The way the Party operates — by choice and design — forces all congressional office-holders to raise money as fast as possible just to feed the Party, not to mention their own campaigns.

And where else would most congressional office-holders and candidates go for these sums, if they don't go to corporations and offer to do their bidding. Most of these members are so uninspiring, they couldn't be funded by Sanders-like small donations even if they begged for it naked in the streets.

The corruption in Congress isn't just human nature; the Party designs it into the system. If you want to know why these people are so corrupt, look no further than Democratic Party leadership.