Casino Democracy: The Curious Case of President Obama and the Mexican Fugitive

The New York Times reported today that President Obama’s campaign would be returning over $200,000 in campaign contributions from family members of Pepe Cardona, a Mexican casino kingpin who fled drug and fraud charges in the United States.

Cardona’s brothers, who had never given a political donation before last year, became major bundlers and fundraisers for Obama last fall. Although Cardona’s family says they began fundraising for the Democratic Party simply to support the President and because their extended family has been involved in helping the Latino community, they have also been seeking a pardon for Cardona, which would enable him to return to the U.S.

While the President does not even have the power to pardon someone for state crimes, this situation is yet another example of the dangers created from a system that necessitates raising large quantities of money to wage political campaigns. As President Obama and Mitt Romney are now both benefiting directly and indirectly from super PACs, it is more than just unregulated ideologues throwing money into the system trying to advance their interests.

It is certainly bad for America, as I argue in my new book, Hopelessly Divided: The New Crisis in American Politics, for those on the extreme left and the extreme right to be able to advance their interests through unregulated money and campaign contributions. It hurts the integrity of our political system, fosters polarization and discourages cooperation in government, and reduces the quality of our political discourse and campaigns.

A forthcoming Forbes article written by Dan Fisher and Jon Bruner demonstrate how easy it has become to use money to penetrate the political system. The fact that a casino kingpin with drug and fraud charges may have been able to buy a pardon from the Governor of Iowa for a few hundred thousand dollars is indicative of just how perilous a political system that relies heavily on unregulated funds is.

We are now effectively living in a casino democracy, in which large sums of money can buy influence and access to important people with relative ease. This story should be a warning sign for Democrats and Republicans alike of how easily our system can be corrupted.

The GOP plan would lower the top income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. Ryan claims they would compensate for the lost revenue through the eliminations of tax loopholes. But his plan is intentionally vague on the most challenging part of this idea – which deductions or credits would be cut – leaving the tough and politically risky work to the House Ways and Means Committee. Regardless of which deductions are eliminated, the lower tax rates would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest Americans.

The most drastic spending cuts would be in health care, as these cuts would make up about half of Ryan’s $5.3 trillion in savings over ten years. Ryan’s plan would convert Medicare to a “premium support” system, providing a fixed amount of money to the program’s enrollees to shop for their own health insurance, giving them the choice to enroll in traditional Medicare.

This plan weakens a guarantee to the elderly and would likely lead to higher costs and premiums in Medicare. This is because healthier, cheaper patients will move to private plans, while those left with traditional Medicare would be older and sicker patients who would be expensive to cover. Ultimately, the premium support plan would move costs to beneficiaries because Ryan’s plan would restrict annual spending growth to well below the level set out by the health care reform act.

In truth, deficit reduction cannot happen without a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases. The Simpson-Bowles commission is just one of many serious, responsible groups to reach this conclusion. Ryan’s plan uses cuts to social programs to give tax cuts rather than pay down the federal debt, which would grow by $4 trillion over his ten-year plan and leave the federal budget in deficit as well.

While Ryan’s plan brings many ideas to the table that are worth including in future budgetary and entitlement reform discussions, his lopsided approach would hurt the country in dangerous and destructive ways.

But I hope the Ryan plan will start an honest conversation towards developing a real plan. Such a plan will not only reform Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, but also will begin to rein in spending and reduce the deficit comprehensively and proactively, rather than reactively to crises in which measures that only partially resolve the problem from one political perspective are passed.