Mr. Schneider Goes to Washington, directed by Jonathan Neil Schneider, focuses on the role of money in American politics. In the style of a documentarian who injects himself into the role of a reporter seeking answers, he interviews past and present members of Congress as well as lobbyists on and off K Street in Washington. Although the subject has been covered many times in one-time documentaries on public television, the aim is to connect with a wider audience, particularly those who naively believe that something is wrong with American politics but do not know exactly what. Lurking amid the question/answer sessions is an implicit puzzle – Did John Kerry lose the 2004 presidential election because he could not raise enough money to run ads on television to match his opponent, George W. Bush?
Historically, the documentary identifies the source of the word “lobbyist” to the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington in the time of President Lincoln, when those seeking money for government contracts sought to buttonhole members of Congress who occupied rooms at the hotel. Today, the funds now sustaining some 34,700 lobbyists in Washington now amount to more than $2 billion per year. What does the money buy? The documentary suggests the follows: (1) Congressional gridlock results when lobbyists are on opposite sides of an issue, but otherwise lobbyists get their way. (2) Candidates use the funds to buy ads on television; but, to raise the money for the ads, they spend 70 percent of their time on fundraising, leaving precious little time for legislating. (3) Lobbyists write multipage legislation, demanding that their clients in Congress pass laws without reading details. (4) Lobbyists extort funds from vulnerable interests, such as those running Native American gambling casinos who fear that laws will adversely affect them. (5) Bribery occurs, though prosecutions are limited to big cases. (6) Campaign finance reform laws are passed for show but leave loopholes to permit candidates to continue as usual. (7) At least one supporter of serious campaign finance has been stripped of power in Congress by colleagues, and another has waffled after trying to be an advocate. After identifying the problem of money corrupting politics, suggestions for reform are advanced: (1) greater disclosure of contributors, (2) contribution limits, (3) reforming the anemic Federal Elections Commission to enforce the law, (4) public financing of elections, (5) and greater public participation to vote out those who have been corrupted. Unfortunately, the analysis of the problem suggests why the proposed remedies are unlikely. MH
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