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Run for the Money

By Joseph A. Califano Jr.
Thursday, May 7, 1998; Page A23

It's time for the Supreme Court to relegate its decision that money has absolute First Amendment rights (Buckley v. Valeo, 1976) to the same dustbin where, in 1954, it tossed its 1896 decision establishing the separate-but-equal doctrine that constitutionally blessed racially segregated schools. The court's action in Buckley is as responsible as any political party for the campaign finance scandals that have spawned a steady rise in corruption and a decline in trust in government over the past quarter-century.

Republicans and Democrats charge each other with responsibility for blocking campaign finance reform. There's ample evidence to indict both the Republican Congress and the Democratic White House for perpetuating the sordid state of money and politics in congressional and presidential primaries and elections. But the unindicted co-conspirators are the justices of the Supreme Court whose decision vesting money with First Amendment rights has made it impossible to craft effective reforms based on a system of public financing.

Republicans and Democrats put tougher campaign finance laws high in the litany of good government reforms that they espouse. But their true prayer is to protect their sources of private funds: for Republicans, access to big bucks from corporations and wealthy individuals; for Democrats, access to the pockets of union members. So long as private money has First Amendment rights, even well-intentioned efforts such as those of Sens. McCain and Feinstein and Rep. Chris Shays are little more than Band-Aids that smart Washington lawyers will peel off as surely as they shucked the Watergate campaign finance reforms. See, for a recent example, the clever and apparently legal swap of funds crafted between national and state Democrats to circumvent limits on the use of soft money.

We can condemn the sleazy actions of politicians running for Congress and the White House and complain about their tacky conduct, but a system that makes them dependent on private money for their campaigns gives them every incentive to act as they do. Those ambitious for public office must panhandle for private dollars unless we make public funds the cornerstone of financing campaigns and sharply limit the amounts that individual citizens and institutions can contribute and candidates can spend. But such a system can be put in place only if the Supreme Court backs off Buckley.

The brief for doing so is persuasive. Raising private money has become the essential qualification for getting nominated and elected to office. Indeed, the brutal demands of political fund-raising deter many qualified candidates of both parties from even getting involved. House members commonly hold their first fund-raiser for reelection (or to pay off debts from their just-finished campaign) within days after their election. Most senators spend a third of their six-year term raising money. President Clinton apparently spends about a quarter of his time schmoozing with big contributors and raising funds. The Republican congressional leadership offers private briefings and weekends with key committee chairs for big contributors. The administration offers nights in the Lincoln bedroom and seats on trade missions and Air Force One.

Big bucks buy access to politicians, and access is the power to make your case alone and in person to members of Congress and the executive branch, whose laws and regulations can send even bigger bucks your way. Financial interests give large amounts of money to "friendly" committee chairmen so that those chairmen have political cash to contribute to campaigns of committee members who vote the way they are told.

The obligation of private interests is to protect their private interests. It's up to members of Congress and the executive branch to ferret out the public interest.

But the field on which we require these politicians to play makes it increasingly difficult for them to seek the public interest, much less act on it. Political profiles in courage are blurred beyond recognition by the overriding quest for private money.

If the Supreme Court needs more concrete examples of the need to overrule Buckley, how about these:

Big Tobacco made it clear to Republicans that their money will continue to flow only if the GOP leadership guts the McCain bill. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who only days before had made former surgeon general C. Everett Coop sound soft on the nicotine pushers, delivered a stinging attack on the bill. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who had previously disqualified himself on tobacco legislation because his brother-in-law, lawyer Richard Scruggs, stood to make billions on the tobacco settlement, slipped the McCain bill to the Senate Finance Committee with a public comment that the $1.10 tax on cigarettes should be reduced.

Recognizing drunk driving as a major-league killer and crippler, the Senate passed a bill requiring states that wanted federal highway funds to adopt a strict standard of .08 percent blood alcohol content as the definition of driver intoxication. Peddlers of beer and other alcohol, and bars and restaurants, went to work on the House. Their bags of campaign money helped tilt the scales in the House Rules Committee, which established procedures to prevent members from even voting on the Senate bill because such a vote would overwhelmingly adopt it.

The Clinton administration allowed China to buy high-tech equipment and know-how from U.S. companies, a risky arrangement and one that seats human rights and freedom from religious persecution in the back of the bus, but one that benefits some of the president's largest contributors.

None of these actions violates any law (and the point is not to judge the public policy positions taken). Indeed all the players -- Big Tobacco, the alcohol, bar and restaurant industries, the arms and high-tech merchants, Republican leaders in Congress and the president -- are doing exactly what our system of campaign financing encourages them to do. We have put those who seek public office and those who seek to influence them on a playing field that is sodded with private money. We have made it very much in the interest of businessmen seeking profits and labor unions seeking power to pay what it takes to elect politicians who promise to help them. We have put enormous pressure on our elected officials to pander to moneyed interests. The Supreme Court has the power to ease that pressure.

The writer is president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. He was secretary of health, education and welfare from 1977 to 1979 and special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson from 1965 to 1969.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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