North Carolina’s Sen. Richard Burr may load “16 tons” as Tennessee Ernie Ford’s old mining song goes, but he’s not getting “just another day older and deeper in debt.” Far from it. The Republican senator’s campaign coffers are doing nicely thanks to the generosity of energy industry executives and political action committees and the like. The McClatchy Washington bureau reports Burr’s picked up $1.7 million from the energy industry since he won his House seat out of Winston-Salem 22 years ago.
That kind of tonnage will help to buy the attack ads Burr’s running against his Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Deborah Ross. It should have been a routine re-election for him, instead the two-term senator finds himself in a tight race.
Burr, a former landscaping equipment salesman, isn’t really doing much differently on the fund-raising scene that most members of Congress, who have come to rely more and more on special interest groups to fund increasingly expensive campaigns.
But voters — whose voices have been dimmed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, which basically opened the floodgates to campaign contributions from business interests — would do well to examine the donation history of Burr and for that matter all members of congressional delegations.
Consider the National Mining Association. Burr voted with the group on all 18 key votes the association was following in the legislative session. No wonder that in his 22 years on Capitol Hill, Burr’s pulled in $157,000 and change from the coal-mining industry. He’s also a favorite of the oil and natural gas industries. Electric companies also are big on Burr, with Duke Energy, headquartered in his home state, considering him a special friend when it comes to donations.
Burr would not be interviewed for the McClatchy story, but he has offered a familiar refrain in the past, one all members of Congress, Republican and Democratic, have echoed. Namely, that Burr does not vote according to his contributors’ list. His spokesperson said the senator “evaluates all legislation and policy positions on their merits.”
But how can members of Congress who take the big money from special interest groups really expect that having their hands out to PACs and others will not give pause to their constituents back home?
Burr may well be someone who just agrees with the energy industry, period, regardless of campaign donations. But sound, strict campaign finance reform could help to eliminate any doubts his or other constituents may have in whether virtually unlimited special interest fund-raising is a harmless “way it is” factor in elections. Or, whether it is, to borrow again from Tennessee Ernie, an attempt to get an office holder to “owe my soul to the company store.”