Patt Morrison Asks

Sheila Krumholz -- she follows the money

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Sheila Krumholz

Sheila Krumholz is executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. (Handout)

Many of these mega-companies, these multinational companies that can afford huge sums for lobbying, also have enormous numbers of employees who have [the money] to invest sizable amounts in politics. Lobbying and campaign contributions are inextricably tied.

Does it matter that almost half the members of Congress are millionaires?

It's an intractable problem that those who have the resources and who live and work in elite circles are those who are more able to navigate a system dependent on big money. Candidates may have ideas, charisma, connect with the voters, yet if they don't have money themselves or access to those with money, they're unlikely to win. It's not all they need, but it's one essential element. The last average Senate cycle needed about $10 million [in campaign funds]; in the House, about $1.4 million.

Campaign contributions now have to be filed to the FEC electronically.

For everyone except the Senate, which has exempted itself. It's completely inexcusable. Even they're embarrassed about it — at least some of them, and others are defiant. The FEC has to wait for the Senate to send them the data. The secretary of the Senate has to transmit the paper files.

It's ludicrous, really. In the Senate, [there's] a sense of entitlement, of specialness, that they don't answer to anyone. The truth is there hasn't been enough pressure placed upon them by the public to insist on change.

The Internet must make your job easier.

When I started in 1993, I worked in the bowels of the Library of Congress, sitting on a concrete basement floor, looking at Polk city directories to match [donations to] individuals. Polk directories listed the names of everyone in the household, so we were able to see when a non-wage-earning person [contributing to a campaign was] a spouse or dependent children. Now we can just go online and find their Little League scores and find they're 7 years old and giving $1,000 [to a campaign].

Kids as donors? Is that legal?

Only if they're giving legally and willfully of their own money. The FEC has been asked many times what the threshold age is; they've never provided it. They have [made] advisory opinions that infants are too young to contribute willfully and knowingly of their own money.

In one classic story, a reporter called and asked a 12-year-old why she gave $1,000 or $2,000 to Senate candidate John Ashcroft. She said, "Just a minute," put the phone down and presumably conferred with her parents and came back and said, "I just think he's doing a great job." It's all with a wink and a nod. The FEC has not stepped in to ban the practice.

What outrages stick with you?

Post office boxes. So many outside organizations are raising and spending millions of dollars, and yet they only exist [legally] as a post office box. Many of these organizations are using lax oversight and post-Citizens United [practices] to directly influence the electoral process without citizens being the wiser.

The Center for Responsive Politics is nonpartisan and nonprofit, but that doesn't stop people from accusing it of bias, usually liberal bias.

That's true, but we're not so worried about that. Our work speaks for itself. People are going to say whatever they can for political advantage, but the public and the press view our research as credible and nonpartisan.

Don't you ever get fed up and want to close your office door and walk away?

It's often disheartening, but there's no alternative. People are in this fight whether they like it or not. If I were to walk away, if any voter were to walk away, that's just what those deep-pocketed interests would like. Because then they're alone in their efforts to influence policy and politics.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.

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