Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An unpersuasive approach

It is election season, and both challengers and incumbents need to raise lots of money to compete for our votes. But there is a right way and wrong way to do it.

Several weeks ago, I received a telephone call from an incumbent in the Congress. I prefer not to mention his or her name, or whether s/he was from the House or Senate, or from which party. The person was from another state and had been in a position to influence the level of appropriations received by the National Institutes of Health.

S/he called my office asking for a campaign donation and said, "You have a large amount of NIH-funded grants. I've done a lot for you. I'm in a tough election, and I am hoping you will return the favor by contributing to my campaign." Before this phone call, we had never talked to one another.

I am grateful for the support given to NIH research by many Congresspeople. The intramural and external research carried out under NIH auspices is expanding our knowledge of disease, diagnostics, and therapies. The whole county and the world benefit from the actions of Congress in this arena.

But it just didn't feel right to receive a campaign solicitation in the context delivered by this candidate. The personalization -- "I've done a lot for you" -- suggested that there should be a quid pro quo. This is clearly at variance with the NIH grant application and approval process, which is based on scientific evaluations by peer reviewers.

It also suggested that there was some kind of unwritten contract between this legislator and me, one to which I was an unknowing party. No one likes to be told that they owe someone in this fashion. I found it unpersuasive, and offensive.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating Paul.

I suppose different folks would handle solicitation in different ways.

This is a breach of covenant between voter and representative--ugly. Question is, based on past responses, if you went public, how do you think congressperson would respond:

1) Paint you as the bad guy?
2) Paul is wrong to interpret the solicitation as "quid pro quo," that is not what I meant.
3) Have others go public (kind of like affairs, women come out the woodwork) who received similar calls.

The list could go on.

Anyway, this is egregious, unacceptable behavior, and others I am sure will post similar. I would ask you to reconsider confidentiality, if not discretely bring it to proper authorities.

This is wrong and in context of presentation, illegal.

Brad

Carole said...

I would suggest that the candidate does not deserve to be reelected or to receive any donations.

Jonathan said...

From Facebook:

I am wondering if you are being too hard on this Rep? This is an especially nasty campaign season. Good Reps and public servants throughout the country, people who have track records of doing the right things (at least for the most part!) are under brutal, relentless assault from an unprecedented reactionary money and bombast machine, with the nation's most popular "news" channel leading the way.

Unfortunately, it takes vast amounts of money to run a viable campaign, and many of the previous supporters of so many of these good people are either feeling intimidated or exhausted, but the fact is that contributions for good, centrist people are way down compared to the enormous cash being contributed by the Koch brothers and many large corporations.

The question for all of us is are we stepping up? Are we doing everything we can to help (re-)elect good people who will in fact pursue policies and research dollars and programs that benefit the common good and keep us moving in the right direction? Do the people who are on the side of moving forward and not succumbing to the reactionary tide have to dunn us for contributions and time and for making crucial phone calls to our friends and relatives or are we proactively reaching out to them to do what we can at this critical time?

Not knowing the particular circumstance here, I can only say that every candidate I know is reaching out to supporters and "constituents" of every kind and trying to motivate the support needed in this election. So, if sometimes someone is not so subtle because you are the 1000th call they've had to make and they maybe are a little sloppy in their delivery, I hope, if they are decent reps, that we are giving them the benefit of the doubt. If we who they are representing to the best of their ability won't, no one else will, and we will reap the consequences.

Brenda said...

From Facebook:

I remember years ago our neighbor was trying to get something (city owned) in front of his house fixed. He called his representative and the next day, a yard sign appeared in support of that candidate. He really needed the repair done, so he left the sign. The repair was completed, just after the candidate won reelection. I don't call it offensive, I call it corruption.

Donal said...

From Facebook:

Paul, you are being too charitable! I would call it solicitation for a bribe - I realize that legally it was not a request for a bribe but morally it certainly is close.

Paul Levy said...

Just to be clear. I can't imagine that this conversation was in any way illegal.

RDeWald said...

Paul, you are being much, much too charitable. Look into your heart, the fact that this solicitation for money was legal, common and ubiquitous doesn't make it right, or any less repugnant.

This person wanted you to trade your money for MY MONEY. This office-holder didn't provide the funds s/he is so proud of directing as I intended them be directed--for the benefit of your patients, I did. You did. We simply trusted him/her with doing so in a proper and fair manner. They failed that simple request by trying to leverage the privilege of serving in government for personal gain.

I understand your position, and you have to choose your battles with an eye to the interest of your organization, but I hope that someone else who is on the receiving end of this betrayal of the public trust will make the perp's name known.

Michael said...

I admire your courage and discretion. I remember from my own experience that the most effective corrective discipline from parent or coach was to have unacceptable conduct identified publicly, yet without names and having to suffer with my guilt in silence as others searched the room for the offender.
Thank you for your example.

Matthew said...

From Facebook:

Well, it *is* a quid pro quo. Does anybody really believe that businesses pay money for "access"? That's diplomatic language -- basically falsehoods everyone agrees to ignore because of the chaos that challenging the status quo would bring. When for-profit corporations invest in lobbying, they do so with the expectation of a return as with any other investment. Arguably, that is the duty of the officers of a for-profit company: to maximise shareholder return.

The ethical situation is murkier for non-profit management, where you have a duty to society. Yes, I understand that for-profit management has a duty to society as well, but nobody hires a for-profit manager based on that, or evaluates his performance on anything but excludable goods.

It's understandably distressing, because its one of those situation where ethical models conflict. A utilitarian viewpoint urges us to do as much good as we can practically accomplish. The aretaic (virtue ethics) viewpoint urges us to guard our character from being corrupted by vicious practices. I think the greatest aretaic risk comes from participating in deception, even so transparent a deception as pretending that lobbying money isn't a quid pro quo. When we conform our words and actions to a falsehood, and everyone around us does the same, our very thoughts become perverted by rationalization. We ultimately weigh our utilitarian decisions, not by the world as it is, but by the world as we pretend it to be.

This is precisely what the great moral teachers of antiquity warned against. If we practice vice for long enough, it leaves us unable to even distinguish between right and wrong. That is where we are as a democratic society. We still have a democratic system, but we've lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

Michael said...

From Facebook:

There's no quid pro quo, though he/she certainly is trying to make you believe there is. Any idea how many hours/week the average congressperson spends on the phone trying to drum up financial support? I've read that 20 hours is pretty standard, 52 weeks a year, election year or not. The greatest flaw in the system is that our representatives run on money, and that money comes from behavior like this.

Jonathan said...

From Facebook:

Matthew, I think you are muddying the issue here. It is a common misconception that lobbying is somehow a bad or morally corrupt activity. The fact is, our political system needs and is structured for lobbying as an important mechanism for specialists (special interests) to inform the creation and implementation of public policy. And political theory tells us that, for the most part, lobbies around various issues are normally in a state of "equilibrium" around a policy median, which is why legislative change is often very difficult. But just like in our legal system writ larger, opposing parties are expected to be partisan and "quid pro quo-ish."

Where the moral line is crossed into simply "buying" votes or influence is defined in law, but to say that all lobbying is morally suspect is simply wrong. This belief is often more a reflection of a certain conceit of certain constituencies of our age that it is possible, and indeed somehow desirable, to be "above" the political fray. Many people decide to register to vote as an "unenrolled" for this very reason. I would say that this is an illusion. This represents the adoption of the "American Idol" approach to engagement in public policy, where one simply sits in a supposedly "independent" or "non-partisan" posture in the audience and votes for the idol of choice. But politics and governing is a whole lot more demanding than that and requires much more engagement than judging a game or reality show.

All of this is a way of saying that there is nothing wrong with a Representative asking for support from people and causes s/he has supported. Such partisanship defines our Democratic system. The moral dilemmas come from the need to raise money to win elections and so is why there is ongoing need to address campaign finance reform. But since our Democracy uses the capacity to raise money as a proxy for popular support and protects the giving of money to influence elections as a first amendment right (and grants that protection to corporations as well as individuals), it is hard to see the logic of an argument that asking for money based on one's representation of a constituent's interests is morally wrong. It's not. It's simply how politics is structured in our capitalist Democracy.

Keith said...

This underlines all that is wrong with our current system of political financing and what makes ever more people cynical of how goverment operates. Does anyone doubt that much of our goverment works on a tit for tat basis and that those with the fatest wallets are able to best to infuence the legislative process. As long as the price of elections keep going up, we will see more of this type of behavior from our politicians.

We need to get corporations, unions, and large donors out of the equation to even the playing field. Unfortunately, our supreme court feels this is infringement of free speech (even though unions and corporations are not people). This kind of ruling will only throw fuel on the fire as it already has this election cycle.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. NIH grants go through a peer review process so there's no way this guy/gal could prohibit your hospital's researchers from getting funding. But he/her does have a say in appropriating money to NIH, which is a good thing. So if this elected official is on the front lines fighting for more research money -- and fighting against those who think the NIH is some sort of unholy scientific secular endeavor, or who think "big government" is bad in any form -- then all the more power to him or her. Write a check. I would and have in similar situations.

Cetus said...

I got a call from a guy the other night who said it would be unfortunate if anything happened to me or my family so wouldn't I want to pay him to protect my house from anyone who wasn't as benevolently disposed toward me and my family as he is.

What should I do?

Anonymous said...

How is this different than the family whose house burned down while firefighters watched because the family didn't pay $75 for the "coverage"?

Please, is the reason that you're keeping silent because you really want this particular candidate (or his/her party affiliation) to win?

Silence is the voice of complicity.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with anon 11:38, except for the last sentence ( IMO, it should be someone's own decision about contributing).
Having been in the position of having good intentions but saying things badly, I think the sentence "I've done a lot for you" is what sank this candidate with you, Paul, and rightly so. But if, as anon points out, they have helped appropriate more research funds, then that is a good cause, however badly they articulate it! Then my next question is, have they really done what they claim, or just sit on the committee and vote with the majority? Otherwise known as, actions speak louder than words.

nonlocal

Dinos Goantas said...

There clearly is a right way and a wrong to do it... and this is the wrong way. Congresspeople usually get elected and gain power in office by being extremely shrewd. This doesn't seem par for the course.


Imagine if, conversely, a major contributor got an appointment with their congressman and said "I contribute a lot to your campaign so I'd be very grateful for your support on my issue." It doesn't get said because it doesn't need to get said - that's the reason the contributor got the appointment in the first place.

However, this is a tough and nasty election so the congressperson deserves some sympathy.

Engineer on Medicare said...

Here's how it works.

Large organizations have lobbyists (employees or contracted representatives) who are in constant contact with staffers of committee members who deal with matters that affect the interests of the organization. Those lobbyists make sure the staffs know what is wanted, and how much the organization contributed via whatever path is legal, including from highly paid employees of the organization.

If the lobbyist is effective there will be an obscure line in some appropriation bill that is tailored to ensure that the money must find its way to the organization.

The NHS has political appointees who will ensure that the organizations that heavily supported the powerful member or chairman will get whatever was in that line in the appropriation bill. If the NHS doesn't do the will of the chairman they stand to get their appropriation cut.

I've seen it happen in the defense industry and I don't doubt that it happens in the health care industry.

Anonymous said...

The underlying problem is the high cost of campaigns, and it will not be fixed until there is public campaign financing (which, of course, the Supreme Court will forbid as a restriction on free speech by Corporations). In the mean time, interested corporations will always have more money to invest than common citizens; after all they have much to gain, often at the expense of the majority of citizens (see banking deregulation, successfully transfering tax moneys and the equity of millions of home owners into bonuses of CEOs). I suspect that the US has become an oligarchy.