If you want to run for a House seat in Congress, it will cost you over $1 million, up from $360,000 in 1986, according to The Campaign Finance Institute. For the Senate, it’s over $7 million. How do politicians raise that much cash? Any way they can — and that means taking money from big corporations and special interest groups in exchange for pushing their agendas in Congress.
Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, in theatres today, tells the story of the corrupt U.S. lobbying system with the story of the Jack Abramoff scandal in 2005 and 2006. In the vein of Gibney’s previous exposés, including the hit Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, about U.S. torture and interrogation practices, Casino Jack follows his hard-hitting style of splicing together pithy quotes, old footage and irrefutable evidence.
Many might remember watching the court proceedings in horror as evidence spilled out on Abramoff’s clandestine bribing of congressmen, including U.S. Representatives Bob Ney and Tom DeLay, his support of sweatshops in Saipan, swindling of Indian tribe casinos, and vulgar, outrageous emails that he exchanged with staff (take note, Goldman Sachs: delete incriminating emails).
Abramoff’s story is shocking and infuriating, but more importantly it sheds light on the issue of corrupt lobbying that’s still rampant in our system today. The problem stems from the exorbitant cost of being elected to Congress, which allows money to determine not only who gets elected, but who stays there. Most members of Congress spend hours each day on the phone asking for money, creating a system that’s ripe for bribing.
“Congress’ need for money is so voracious and huge that they don’t have their guard up,” said Susan Schmidt, the Washington Post reporter for who broke the Abramoff story, in the film. “It’s created a political industry fueled by corporate dollars,” said director Alex Gibney in a panel discussion on April 21, following a screening of the film. “Unless we find a way to cut off the flow, this career path—which has nothing to do with public service and everything to do with making money—is going to continue running the place.”
There are over 10,500 lobbyists in the U.S., and last year over $3.48 billion went toward lobbying. The biggest spenders were health care ($545 million), finance, insurance and real estate ($467 million) and energy and natural resources ($413 million). Of course, not all lobbying is bad. Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, hires lobbyists to represent the interests of young Americans, and credits their efforts for getting those 26 or under to stay on their parents’ health insurance. “These young people are in college, they’re struggling to make ends meet, they’re certainly not going to spend the time to do policy research on health care,” she said at the April 21 panel, “let alone spend what turned into over a year working in DC every single day trying to make sure this gets in.”
It’s when money is mixed into the system that things go sour. As Harvard Law professor and founder of Change Congress Lawrence Lessig put it during the same panel: “There’s all the difference in the world between a lawyer making an argument to a jury and a lawyer handing out hundred dollar bills to the jurors.”
The tagline for Casino Jack — “Come See Where Your Democracy Went” — implies the film will step back to examine the current lobbying scandals and political bribing. In the last few minutes of the film, it briefly touches on the present situation, but many viewers will be left wanting more. Most of us forget a more recent lobbying scandal which had insurmountable consequences: Wall Street.“Abramoff was screwing up the lives of Indians and screwing up the lives of Asians, and all of that is horrible, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s tiny. The real corruption is the in plain sight,” said Lessig at the panel. “The sort of thing that led Washington to completely deregulate Wall Street, to play this extraordinary gamble — a gamble which they lobbied to guarantee that when it went bust, they would be backed up by the government — that led to the collapse of the economy.”