The late Rep. Eugene Keogh, the Brooklyn Democrat, was a wise and worldly man who wrote the legislation creating, and gave his name to, the Individual Retirement Account for self-employed persons.
He also gave his fellow politicians a priceless definition of the most disturbing kind of campaign contribution a candidate could receive: a plain envelope containing four $100 bills. That's because most cash contributions are made in sums of either $500 or $1,000. Thus the candidate never knew for sure whether the individual delivering the envelope to him had lightened the original donation by $100, $600 or even more.
In today's more subtle political era, cash is verboten. Instead of envelopes, congressional candidates seeking reelection turn to political action committees, which in 1998 gave a total of $216 million to candidates, favoring incumbents over challengers by an 8 to 1 margin.
The men and women who run PACs have become the political equivalent of mutual-fund managers, offering a diverse portfolio of incumbent officeholders in safe seats. Managers change their "investment" strategy to reflect the changing political "market."
During the 1992 campaign, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate, General Electric's $683,000 in PAC contributions went to Democrats over Republicans by an almost 3 to 2 margin. But by the 1998 election, with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, a brighter light bulb had gone on, and GE had discovered previously overlooked virtues in the GOP, which then received three out of five of the company's PAC dollars.
But the Federal Express PAC brought a new meaning to "overnight delivery" by doubling its share of PAC dollars to Republicans from a modest 38 percent of the total in 1994 to 75 percent of the $1 million contributed in 1998. United Parcel Service, which made an even speedier political U-turn, in 1994 gave a majority of its $2.6 million in PAC dollars to the Democrats. By 1998, UPS was backing the majority Republicans on Capitol Hill by a lopsided 4 to 1 margin. Victory carries with it a special fragrance all its own.
You want proof for that last statement? In 1998 Republican Peter Fitzgerald was the only challenger to defeat a Democratic incumbent in the Senate, Carol Moseley-Braun. Thanks to the Center for Responsive Politics, we learn that 30 PACs that had contributed to Democrat Moseley-Braun before the election -- in the days immediately following the election -- scrambled to contribute to Republican Fitzgerald.
These 30 PACs -- included among them those of American Airlines and United Airlines, investment houses Lehman Brothers and Goldman-Sachs, accounting giants Price Waterhouse Coopers and Arthur Andersen and auto maker Daimler Chrysler (wouldn't Chrysler Benz have sounded better?) -- contributed in the six weeks after the election $133,500 to Sen.-elect Fitzgerald. In the 24 months before the election, Moseley-Braun, from these same 30 PACs, had received $117,500.
With a personal fortune that puts him among the four wealthiest senators, Fitzgerald may be less vulnerable than some to contributors' demands. But a Congress of multimillionaires is neither desirable nor healthy.
Just before he retired from the Senate in 1986, Barry M. Goldwater, the late maverick Arizona conservative, told me of the corrosive and corrupting influence campaign financing had upon candidates once they win office.
"There is no question in the world," declared Goldwater, "that money has control." Goldwater agreed with his own Senate leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, who in a burst of candor once told the Wall Street Journal, "When these political action committees give money, they expect something in return other than good government."
PACs alone cannot be blamed for the all-consuming money chase to which candidates have increasingly given themselves. Powerful committee chairmen have been known to perform what qualifies as legalized extortion on the PACs of companies with legislative business before that chairman's committee.
But the current system of candidates increasingly depending upon special interests and wealthy individuals for their campaign dollars contributes to the growing public perception that access to and influence on governmental decision-makers are on the auction block. The appearances are ugly. And until this Congress has the courage to free itself from the tyrannical money master, that ugly perception will be reality.
Creators Syndicate Inc.