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Monday, April 24, 2006

Who do your Senators work for?

It's really only just starting to pick up momentum, but IPac is apparently already starting to cause some waves, at least judging by the reaction of Senator Burns (R-MT). Now, in his defense, an iPod is an unorthodox campaign contribution, and his campaign was probably unsure how to handle it.

Let's be clear, though: the contribution was completely legal. It would be classified under essentially the same rules that govern computers, TVs, recorders, and other office supplies. The guys running IPac are not wild-eyed Internet yahoos, they're smart, experienced lawyers and lobbyists, and they made sure the i's and t's were dotted and crossed, respectively.

It's my understanding that the iPods would also fall under the same rules governing such campaign contributions as airfare and car rentals. I'm not a lawyer, though, so I'll freely admit that I could be misunderstanding the campaign finance laws.

Now, faced with the unusual, apparently unprecedented iPod contribution, the senators have three real options:
  1. Graciously and publicly accept them, possibly with some platitudes about taking digital rights very seriously, blah blah blah.
  2. Ignore the contribution all together and hope it goes away.
  3. Return them.
Option 2 would generate essentially no publicity, good or bad. Option 1 would most likely generate favorable publicity from the online community, but might annoy the RIAA, MPAA, and other Hollywood coalitions. Option 3 would warm the hearts of the aforementioned special interests, while igniting some fires on the Internet.

Obviously he chose 3. Why? Could it be the larger contributions he's already received from the entertainment industry? Could it be that the iPod, small as it was, was obviously meant to affect his thinking directly rather than acting through his pocketbook?

I really have little doubt that his intention was to avoid the appearance of impropriety, which is laudable. At first glance, though, it sure looks like a nice way of declining a potential bribe on the grounds that you've already accepted a larger competing offer, though. If that were actually the case, at least we'd know that some of our elected officials have the decency not to play both sides.

In reality, my guess is that his campaign got this thing, didn't know what to do with it, and so figured they'd do what they perceived to be safest. There aren't many ways to break campaign finance laws by declining contributions, and the staffers probably figured that the internet crazies who'd get upset are "those other long-haired geeky people," not the Senator's real-world constituents.

That was their real mistake. They are likely still thinking of the Internet as a thing "out there." They haven't realized that it is made up of people, most of whom are completely normal, and who comprise a group that is, in general, better-informed than most "normal" people.

I'm blogging about this at midnight in Northwest Arkansas, and who am I? I'm a freakin' nobody to a congressman from Montana! But how many nobodies in Montana are reading this? Or another similar story? Or -- the horror! -- writing their own?!

How many people elsewhere are reading reports of this and wondering who their Senator works for?

Here's a hint: As I write this, IPac's website is really, really slow. I suspect that means it's being Slashdotted and/or Dugg at this very moment. That translates into tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of interested readers.

Now there's a thought to keep a campaigning politician up a night....

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Addendum: It isn't my intention to imply that Sen. Burns, specifically, is any worse or better than any of his colleagues. I'm sure he isn't. But his office's actions in this case demonstrate something interesting about our attitude as voters. What's offensive to us isn't that he wouldn't accept a donation, but that he wouldn't accept ours. The implication is that what we've come to expect as a best-case scenario is something akin to The Simpson's Mr. Burns' health condition, in which all the diseases racking his body perfectly balance and counteract each other.

That's pretty sad, if you ask me.

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