As a member of the Missouri Senate, I can legally accept gifts from lobbyists unlimited in number and in value: fine wine, expensive meals, tickets to the World Series — whatever is on offer. And if I were seeking re-election, I could also accept unlimited campaign contributions. Without violating the law, a single person, union, or corporation could write my campaign a check larger than most Missouri families make in an entire year. In fact, I would probably need to seek out such checks — checks at least in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars — if I wanted to win my election.
This should frighten you.
Missouri is the only state in the country with rules like these, and it shows. During the past two years, Missouri legislators have together accepted over $1.8 million in lobbying gifts, with some accepting over $15,000 in such gifts. Meanwhile, candidates running for office in Missouri have accepted hundreds of five- and six-digit campaign contributions. And, unfortunately, it is not a broad, representative base of citizens who have given these gifts and contributions. Instead, it is a narrow set of special interests that have done so, special interests that expect returns on their investments.
As one might guess, what results is a corruption of the institution of Missouri government, a corruption driven by big money in politics. But how exactly does this corruption arise?
I will tell you.
First, money buys access. Imagine that you’re a lobbyist. Elected officials have busy schedules, and it can be hard to get meetings with them. But if you’ve given an official a $10,000 campaign contribution, or if you regularly take him and his colleagues out to dinner, you probably won’t have a problem. You can just call him on his cell phone to discuss an issue, and he’ll make your call a priority. You’ll be able to tell him your side of the story, respond to any concerns he might have, and perhaps make plans to discuss the matter further over a meal that you will pay for.
Second, money buys favors. Here’s how this works: First, you establish yourself as a reliable supporter of an elected official, sending big checks her way to support her re-election campaign. Then, when a bill that would hurt your client’s bottom line is referred to her committee, you ask her to quietly kill it by refusing to give it a hearing. Though she’s made no promise to do you such a favor, she knows in the back of her mind that you will likely stop giving her checks if she doesn’t. She doesn’t know enough about the bill to decide whether it would hurt Missourians for her to kill it, but she does know that losing your support would hurt her chances of re-election. So she kills the bill for you.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, money buys fear. If you have money, and if you show that you’re willing to use it, elected officials will fear that you will fund their opponents. Because of this, many of them will do what you want without you so much as giving them a dime. The more money you have, the bigger the threat, and the more they will fear you.
When special interests are the big spenders, what does all of this mean for Missourians? It means that our health care is more expensive than it needs to be. It means that our small businesses lose out to unions and big corporations. And it means that our tax dollars go to waste.
This is why I’m introducing a new bill: the Missouri Anti-Corruption Act. If passed, it would put an end to the culture of lobbyist gift-giving in Jefferson City. It would close loopholes in our state’s ethics and disclosure rules. And it would rework campaign finance laws to expand the role of small donors, freeing politicians from the need to rely on deep-pocketed special interests.
I hope you will join the effort to end institutional corruption here in Missouri. If you would like to receive updates about the bill, I invite you to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, writing “Missouri Anti-Corruption Act Email List” in the subject line.
State Sen. Rob Schaaf is a Republican from St. Joseph.