Saturday, April 28, 2007

How to help ‘our candidates’

Back on April 23rd, I wrote a little piece about Don Young. I stated at the time:
The thing that made me think of Don Young recently is that over on TPM Muckraker they are reporting that 25 senators have demanded that the administration give some answers about GSA chief, Lurita Doan. Seems she has been trying to find a way to use the considerable buying power of the federal government to “help our [Republican] candidates.” In this effort, she employed a PowerPoint presentation which you can see here. (pdf)
I thought about it a little more since then, and here’s the question that I keep coming back to: How can the GSA help Republican candidates?

There are a couple of possibilities. One is by steering business into districts where the party has determined to make a stand because their incumbent candidate is vulnerable. By doing so, they can enable their candidate to point to his or her ability to bring home the bacon. As I pointed out in my Don Young piece, bringing home the bacon will win you votes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it can be overdone. Witness the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

A more subtle variation on this text is that by spending money in a particular district, the GSA can improve economic circumstances there. Improved economic circumstances translate to increased satisfaction with the status quo, which in turn inures to the benefit of the incumbents. The problem here is that it is too subtle, too slow-working and too unreliable. This sort of program doesn’t get done at the management level that Ms. Doan was addressing with her PowerPoint presentation.

Here’s the real deal: If you want to engage in pork barrel politics, the way to do it is to get an earmark in some Christmas tree bill, and then show up at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. That’s the way to improve a local economy. But more importantly, that’s one way to make people feel good about their local incumbent. Notice that this does not involve the GSA.

So, how then can the administrator of the GSA help “our candidates?”

Let’s say you are a manufacturer of ballpoint pens in one of those districts that the Republicans need to defend. A contract for $20 million dollars worth of ballpoints can have a pronounced effect on your bottom line. So much so, that you might be grateful to the congressman or woman who steered the contract your way. It may even be enough to encourage you to make a big donation to that Congress member’s re-election campaign.

You know, a big donation would enable a candidate to pay for a media campaign. That’s another way to make people feel good about their local incumbent. Come to think of it, this technique works even if the candidate is a challenger.

So why is this a scandal? The answer is that if you are steering business to a company in order to get contributions to your Republican campaign committee, or even to the candidate’s campaign, and there is an explicit quid pro quo, then it starts to look a lot like you are shaking down local businesses for bribes.

And there’s a law against that.

“… and tell ’em Big Mitch sent ya!”

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