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A veteran Washington lawyer who once served an apprenticeship with a prominent U.S. Senator relates a telling experience. The lawyer, who represents an agency of a state government, visited the home office of a Congressman in that state to discuss a national issue affecting the agency and, indirectly, the Congressman's constituents. After an effusive greeting, the Congressman's next words were brief and to the point:
"How much money can you contribute?"
The stunned lawyer explained that he represented a state agency and that state governments do not contribute to political candidates. As if in response to hearing some programmed words that altered his brain circuitry, the Congressman changed his tone and demeanor instantly. Suddenly, he had more pressing obligations. He would be unable to meet with the lawyer. Rather, he said, an aide would listen to whatever it was the lawyer had to say.
Of course, those who give money to political candidates or their parties don't necessarily get everything they seek. Often the reason is that their opponents are just as well connected. But they do get access--to the Representative or Senator, the White House aide or Executive Branch official--to make their case.
Try it yourself. You won't get it.
Bits and pieces of the story of those who give the money and what they get in return have been told, here and elsewhere. But who gets hurt--the citizens and businesses that do not play the game--remains an untold story.
Over the next nine months, continuing until the presidential election in November, TIME will publish periodic reports examining the anonymous victims of big money and politics.