House of Lords for Sale
November 25, 2006
by William P. Meyers

According to an article in The Economist (November 18th-24th 2006, p. 58) there is an investigation going on in Britain. Apparently there is some evidence that the Labour Party, headed by Prime Minister Tony ("the poodle") Blair, has been giving away seats in the House of Lords (called peerages) in return for cash to run election campaign. It is called the cash-for-peerages scandal.

The House of Lords is the upper house in Britain's Parliament, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Senate. But traditionally the Lords inherit their seats, this going back to those times when the Lords were the feudal rulers of Britain, led by the king. There are 26 Lords Spiritual who get their seats by virtue of holding offices in the Church of England (for instance, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The power of the Lords has been gradually diminished, so in a way it is not so important who gets to be a Lord. It is largely a matter of prestige. But you know how it is: when you enter a social event would you rather have people saying, "Oh my God, it's Lord Meyers," or "Look, it's that damn merchant social climber Meyers." No, doubt about it, being a Lord means you've made it to the top in Great Britain.

Contrast the U.S. Senate. The free-market dynamics is much more subtle here. Take Dianne Feinstein, the Senator from California. She was recently re-elected by wide margins. Her (third and current) husband (Richard C. Blum), like Nancy Pelosi's husband, is astonishingly rich. You would think, if you never paid attention to American real-politics, that they would both be Republicans, the party of the Rich.

But when you look at the higher-ranking Democratic Party politicians, you realize that the Democrats are the other party of the Rich.

It takes a lot of money to win a Senate seat (the possible exceptions being states like Alaska and North Dakota, that have very small populations, yet get 2 senators, just like New York, California, Texas and Florida). More than that, you usually have to work your way up through the system. Diane Feinstein, for instance, started as a member of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco. Before that her family had shown it had some campaign-donation clout of its own by getting Dianne appointed to the California Women Parole Board. She ran for Mayor of San Francisco and lost a couple of times, then automatically became Mayor when George Moscone was assassinated in 1978. She was first elected to the Senate in 1992. After her failed attempt to become governor in 1990 she was fined $190,000 for failing to report contributions, including a $2.9 million loan guarantee by her husband.

Multiply by 100 and you have the U.S. Senate. It was named after the Roman Senate, which was hereditary. You can't actually inherit the seats themselves, but you can inherit the money that can finance the campaigns to win these seats. They are actually considerably more valuable than the seats in the House of Lords. The United States of America has an economy much larger than Great Britain's. There are 751 seats in the House of Lords, but only 100 in the U.S. Senate. It is, as the economists say, a question of supply and demand.