Senators for Sale (Euros Accepted)?

(This blogpost has been slightly revised from the form in which it first appeared in response to a useful suggestion e-mailed in from a reader.)

Let’s say you’re a big European polluter, content with the status quo you’ve been used to for decades that allows you to pump out as much CO2 into the atmosphere as you like at virtually no cost to your bottom-line. In 2010, though, it’s easy to see how this sort of laissez-faire is not long for a world ever-more aware and convinced of the detrimental effects of such emissions on the global climate. And while local/national measures to make you pay for your pollution are always unwelcome, the authorities who impose them will always be constrained by the fact that hampering companies under their jurisdiction this way raises their costs and so cuts down on their international competitiveness as long as other countries refrain from doing anything similar. No, the real threat to pollution-as-usual is any global anti-climate change accord.

What to do? Launching an appeal to your national or EU-level representatives – “Hey, could you slow it down a bit with the climate change stuff?” – isn’t going to work, since their job-description is the furthering of common interests over the parochial, and you and your CO2-emitting technology are definitely on the wrong side of History. But maybe there are some more imaginative measures available . . .

Consider today’s report from the French press-agency AFP (discussed among other places on the Swiss news website 24heures), on some innovative lobbying efforts being undertaken on the part of a consortium of leading European industrial firms – within the US federal government! Specifically, the article details how representatives in their employ have approached four US Senators famous for being global warming deniers to contribute money to their political funds, totalling $306,000 this year, to support their anti-climate change efforts – in the first instance their fight against any sort of “cap-and-trade” pollution-control regime. And then, in a nice cynical twist, these companies have then turned around to argue to European authorities that it makes no sense to push for any global climate-change measures now, because it is by no means certain that the US government will come on board!

Naturally, these firms – among which the largest monetary contributions come from the German companies Bayer and BASF – wanted to do this all secretly, but their dastardly deeds have now been exposed by the Climate Action Network (CAN), a international umbrella-organization encompassing around 500 climate/ecology NGOs, whose researchers took the trouble simply to read the mid-October report from the US Federal Election Commission that details which candidates got how much money from whom, and then to do a little arithmetic. The CAN report even pins the blame for the failure of the COP15 climate summit last December in Copenhagen on a reluctance for any accord on the part of President Obama and his administration that supposedly had been cultivated by these underhanded lobbying efforts.

That last assertion, of course, is rather doubtful; I’ll need much further proof than that before I’ll start believing that Obama was, in effect, on the take at that Copenhagen summit. Beyond that, though, these CAN charges as publicized by the AFP ultimately fall rather flat under any sort of closer examination. For starters, that alleged amount of $306,000 in combined campaign contributions to four Senators in 2010 (an average of $76,500 per Senator) is rather low on the Washington political-contribution scale. It’s highly doubtful that they really got much in exchange for that amount, besides maybe a brief visit to the lawmaker’s Capitol Hill office, a post-on-your-wall photo shaking hands with the politico, and maybe a set of state-seal-embossed ink-pens. (Admittedly, there’s no mention in the article of the amounts they may have paid in previous years.)

Secondly, it’s clear that the lobbyists in the employ of these European companies are behind the times, that they have not kept up with the new political rules resulting from last January’s Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that declared corporations equivalent to private persons when it comes to political speech, and thereby enabled unlimited and anonymous contributions to political campaigns – if not directly to candidates, then to “independent” political advocacy organizations ready to spend money and advertise on specific candidates’ behalf. The European companies could have given as much as they wanted to their favorite US senators, albeit indirectly, and would never have had to worry about anyone from the general public (European or American) hearing about it, if they only had been better-advised. For heavens’ sake, gentlemen, call Karl Rove!

The impact these CAN revelations should ultimately have is therefore much like watching a youngster steal from the Church collection-plate: it’s a trivial offense in itself, but does indicate in the perpetrator the sort of crooked disposition and intent that definitely bear further monitoring.

UPDATE: Look, Europolluters, let me help you out – or rather let former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson do so (in Foreign Money, National Security, and the Midterm Elections). He’s writing here about the Citizens United decision, of course; here are some extracts to give you a flavor:

We have effectively enfranchised foreigners in US elections. This is clearly and absolutely not what the drafters of the Constitutions [sic] had in mind. . . . And however you prefer to define our legitimate national security interests, how are they consistent with letting foreign citizens influence or even determine the outcome of our elections?

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