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A Dose of Real Reform . . .

By Robert Kuttner
Wednesday, October 1, 1997; Page A25


The most useful byproduct of the deepening money-and-politics scandal would be a dose of real reform. The risk, however, is that the scandal will just deteriorate into a partisan vendetta.

The overt corruption of money purchasing access is only the most visible damage to our system. I know two good people who briefly considered running for high office. Both were advised they would have to spend three-quarters of their time raising money.

The present system not only corrupts democracy. It scares away the very citizens who might restore idealism and credibility to public service.

Technical illegalities, like Gore's fund-raising calls from a government office, get the headlines. But the real scandal is what's legal. Consider the recent Teamsters election.

A political consultant named Martin Davis, whose clients included both Teamster President Ron Carey and the Democratic National Committee, came up with a convoluted scheme to circumvent election laws. In Davis's alleged "double-swap" scheme, the Teamsters gave $475,000 to the grass-roots group Citizen Action for a get-out-the vote drive. Some of that money ultimately went to help the Carey campaign – an illegal laundering of union funds.

In another loop of the scheme, fund-raisers for Citizen Action reciprocated by steering donations to the Teamsters. Davis also pressed the Democratic National Committee (with little success) to raise money for Carey. These donations helped enrich Davis, who was on both sides of the transactions.

This particular scheme was illegal only because of the special rules governing union elections. Union officials may not tap union treasuries for their own campaigns, and there are strict limits on donations by outsiders. Davis and company, incredibly, tried to launder money for an election being run under close federal supervision. But their scheme was only a slight variation on the kind of legal money laundering endemic in politics today.

On the right, the Christian Coalition and large corporate donors funnel tax-exempt money and shareholder money to help parties and candidates. On the left, tax-exempt donations are channeled to voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, and unions promote candidates through education campaigns – all perfectly legal, if you have a careful bookkeeper.

The right, of course, has far more money than the left. At this week's convention in Pittsburgh, the AFL-CIO, long worried that "reforms" would curtail unions but not corporations, changed its position. The labor federation now favors radical reform.

Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairing the Senate's investigation of abuses, has shifted from a search for scandals to a quest for reform. The Senate is at last taking up a watered-down McCain-Feingold bill, banning "soft" (unregulated) money that now flows from fat cats and corporations in unlimited amounts to parties, which funnel it to candidates, making a mockery of the nominal rules.

Most wealthy donors and some civil libertarians argue that money simply equals speech (the issue has split the board of the American Civil Liberties Union). In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Pete du Pont, former Republican governor of Delaware and heir to a middling fortune, characterized any limits on political money as an "affront to liberty . . . a bit of Leninism superimposed on modern America."

Leninism! Du Pont's article was titled "Price Controls on Democracy." How like a millionaire to equate the writing of a large check with the right to vote. Money buys power everywhere else – why not in politics? As long as politicians are reliant on such checks, wealthy people like du Pont will get their phone calls returned faster and their votes will count for more.

If democracy is to be real, the business of election and deliberation has to be insulated from the purchase of influence. Though money, seemingly, always will find a way to buy influence, most Western democracies have more public financing, stricter limits on legal bribery, more free TV time for debates, fewer paid ads and other devices to keep private donations from corrupting the public's business. Overseas, not surprisingly, more ordinary people bother to vote.

It took Watergate for a Democratic Congress to enact the last attempt at keeping money from dominating politics. That reform stuck for barely a decade, before new tactics and bad court decisions undermined it.

With Republicans, who are advantaged by the current rules, now controlling Congress and with Democrats the targets, radical reform seems unlikely. But if public indignation can focus on the real malady rather than the symptoms, demand for real reform may grow. A soft money ban would be a good start.

The writer is co-editor of the American Prospect.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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