Under the Influence: Money and Power in Politics

Who Runs Los Angeles?

Clockwise from top left: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (srd515); AEG's Tim Leiweke (ericrichardson); Fmr. Mayor Richard Riordan (daveblume); Councilwoman Jan Perry (RobHelfman). All images from flickr.Power in Los Angeles isn't what it used to be. Once, men like Harry and Norman Chandler, former publishers of the L.A. Times and economic oligarchs, wielded enormous political and economic influence across the entire basin. Today, power is diffuse, spread out, parceled out to different players and interest groups- unions, developers and neighborhood groups- who in turn form a perpetually shifting set of alliances. It's the reason why it's so hard to get anything done in L.A.- and perhaps why the city's political outlook seems so uncertain.

On the day after Christmas 1952, Southern California Republican Rep. Norris Poulson received a letter from Norman Chandler, then-publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

"Dear Norrie," the letter began. It went on to explain that Chandler, Asa Call (the president of Pacific Mutual Insurance) and a collection of powerful downtown businessmen had been talking, and they wanted him to run for mayor. They promised to "generously" bankroll the campaign and lobby for a salary bump that would include, as a perk, a Cadillac and chauffer for Poulson to "strut around in."

And so they did. Poulson won the election and served as little more than a puppet of a group that later became known as the Committee of 25, which, depending on your historical interpretation, was either an enormously powerful clique of the city's business elite or a shadow government running the city.

Read more at USC News 21.

Ryan's Plan Unpopular With Voters, Not With Industry

Paul Ryan speaking at CPAC 2011. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)Paul Ryan's budget plan may have spooked both moderate Democrats and Republicans with its steep Medicare cuts. The Senate rejected the plan just last week.

But while the House Budget Committee Chairman's proposed voucherization turned off many of his constituents and fellow lawmakers, it didn't staunch the money flowing in from industry donors.

Ryan, R-Wis., received tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions from corporate interests while he was drafting his proposal, Federal Election Commission records show.

Landmark Decision: Citizens United and Washington

Capitol Hill is becoming increasingly affected by the Citizen's United ruling. (Photo: Catherine Cloutier)Slightly more than a year after going into effect, the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision is having a profound effect on national and local politics.

Citizens United — as it is commonly called — reversed the ban on corporate spending on political broadcasts and introduced the rather controversial notion that corporations should be treated the same as ordinary citizens under the First Amendment.

Alcohol bill splits industry, campaign contributions

The CARE Act will make it more difficult for lawsuits to challenge state alcohol regulations. (Credit: John Guenther)

Shoppers can buy just about anything online today with just a point and click, from a book to a pair of shoes to a camera. But buying a bottle of wine can be a little trickier.

That's because states, not the feds, have ultimate control over the sale of alcohol crossing their borders, unlike almost every other product. This allows states to prevent residents from buying that bottle of wine directly from an out-of-state seller.

A bill before Congress could strengthen states' hold on that power and make it harder for alcohol producers to break into new markets. The pending legislation has already reignited a fight between producers and wholesalers, whose business it is to distribute alcohol across the country and who represent one of the most powerful industry lobbies in Washington.

More Questions Than Answers One Year After Health Reform

One of many signs held high at a rally for health care reform in Seattle in May 2009. The Affordable Care Act had not passed yet. (seiuhealthcare775nw/Flickr)Health care is one of the most important issues for seniors. After all, older people tend to have more expensive illnesses, more pre-existing conditions, and often have to pay more for insurance. So it should come as no surprise that AARP, with more than half of its members under 65 and not yet eligible for Medicare, is one of the largest supporters of health care reform.

In 2009 the organization hired more than 50 lobbyists to push for the passage of the Affordable Care Act, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

The bill passed and was signed into law in March of last year. Those in Congress opposed to what they call ObamaCare immediately vowed to repeal it, but that's no longer the main concern for AARP.

Spotlight: Pro-Israel Lobby

View Full Size (Graphic: Madeleine Scinto)The pro-Israel lobby, which consists mostly of American Jews, works to secure U.S. support for the country's economic, political and military endeavors.

Although Israeli policy often clashes with the goals of its Arab neighbors, especially with those of the Palestinians, the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. confronts almost no opposition.

"There's really no comparison to be made between the number of organizations that we would consider to lobby on the pro-Israel side versus those that would be pro-Palestinian or otherwise," said Dave Levinthal, spokesperson for the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group that tracks money in American politics.

Since 1990 the Israel lobby has contributed $78 million to congressional incumbents and $94 million when including non-incumbents. The pro-Israel lobby ranks 40 in total campaign giving as compared to more than 80 other industries, reports the Center for Responsive Politics.

Most of the lobby's campaign contributions come from local political action committees and individuals who give to candidates favored by pro-Israel PACs.

Earmark Ban Makes Congressional Pork Hard to Track

Pork belly is still on the menu. (FotoosVanRobin/Flickr)Earlier this year House Republicans made good on their promise to ban earmarking, a practice which in many ways has become shorthand for wasteful government spending and shady politics.

"An earmark moratorium shows that elected officials are serious about restoring trust between the American people and those who are elected to represent them," House Speaker John Boehner said at the time.

Denied the use of their time-honored negotiating tool, however, legislators are beginning to exploit a loophole in the ban by turning to a far more obscure strategy to seek funding for their constituencies, one that is appropriately being referred to as "phonemarking."

Will Revolving Door Staffers Impact Planned Parenthood Funding?

(Ennuipoet/Flickr)With its federal funding already threatened and congressional budget negotiations still under way, Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides health care and abortions at reduced prices, faces an uncertain future.

The organization came under fire last month with a House budget proposal that would have withdrawn its federal funding. Although the Senate defeated the resolution on March 9, Congress may press forward with the issue in the next version of the budget.

"We've gained a lot of momentum. We expect that in whatever budget measure comes up next, defunding Planned Parenthood will be in it," said Wendy Wright, CEO of Concerned Women for America, a socially conservative organization that has been lobbying for federal defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Wright has at least one reason to be optimistic. Michael Schwartz, the former head of government relations at Concerned Women now serves as the chief of staff to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Although he hasn't yet taken sides in the current budget battle, Coburn is a staunch conservative who serves as one of the "Gang of Six," a group of Democratic and Republican senators who are involved in long-term budget negotiations. Coburn is also an influential Republican and member of the Senate Finance Committee who many Washington observers say has significant sway within his party leadership.