Let's be right up front about it: the ugly lucre of the U.S. election system is driving Rep. Charles A. Vanik (D-Ohio) out of Congress, and it's a shame.
A shame, because Vanik is one of those people in the House who keeps giving integrity a good name, doing what he thinks is right rather than expedient.
The way we are, maybe all such nice things have to end. So after 13 terms in the House, Vanik is sitting out the 1980 election because he refuses to go out and raise campaign money.
Vanik's view -- not shared, obviously, by very many other House members -- is that a dollar received is a favor owed, which is the worst way to make public policy.
When friends and advisers said that reelection this time would require raising some money, Vanik decided that coming up on 67 years, and having seen it all, the time was right to pack it in.
Vanik had been reelected by spending no more than $2,000 to $3,000 each time, and with it he preserved for himself an independence that sometimes was confused with impetuosity, flakiness and/or theater.
He called a news conference last January in Cleveland, and announced he was quitting because he didn't want to sully his independence. Money, he told reporters, was creating a revolving-door Congress with "little stability or courage."
Since then, he hasn't recanted a bit, except that he may feel even more strongly about his House brethren.
"I feel every contribution carries some sort of lien which is an encumbrance on the legislative process," Vanik said the other day. "Contributions are rewarded by legislative policy. This is bought and sold.
"Today I'm terribly upset by the huge amounts that candidates have to raise. Every night there are seven or eight fund-raisers around here -- that is Washington lobbyist money they're seeking. And it won't stop until the lobbyists from a union and end it all."
Many House members think the same way. Few, though, will acknowledge it, which only serves to underline the importance of hearing from a Charlie Vanik every so often.
There is a fascinating side to the streak of freedom that propels Vanik. Rather than running around raising money and politicking, Vanik put his time and considerable brainpower to the ideas of legislation and policymaking.
The results of that are impressive. Vanik is seen universally as a four-square battler for the underdog, the working man and the middle-class taxpayer -- fairly left-wing views on the Ways and Means Committee. He loved to whack away at the tax-dodging corporations and the gentry who could win tax breaks in Congress.
"I always felt that a great majority of the American people had no lobby in Congress before Ralph Nader came along. The people of Cleveland rewarded me with their votes, and that gave me a freedom to legislate," Vanik said.
So in the mid-1970s, as Vanik was about to become chairman of the first trade subcommittee at Ways and Means, there were tremors in corporate America. The gadfly might become a hornet.
The way it turned out, the big businesses and the multinationals he had blistered so regularly decided he wasn't half bad. They liked his fairness, his industry and his intellect.
Much of the major trade legislation that went through Congress during the decade carried the fine fingerprints of Vanik, and won him lasting endearment in the business community.
"He is always coming after us, criticizing us on our tax payments, but Vanik has been an absolutely outstanding subcommittee chairman," said Robert McNeil of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, a multinationals' organization.
"He has been fair, available, considerate, reflective, terribly responsible.
He was the right guy at the right time, just one helluva chairman," McNeil said.
Fred Stokeld, director of international policy at the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, said, "On a scale of zero to 10, Vanik is viewed pretty high up there in a very tricky sport. He was a responsible statesman on rough issues, never a pushover, and he didn't suffer fools gladly."
Equally effusive things come from the other side. Robert Brandon, who used to be Ralph Nader's right-hand man on tax reform, remembered Vanik as "the archetypical non-influenced politician. He always seemed to be on the right side of the issues . . . He reflected a solid philosophy on why he was here. He had no trouble making decisions."
Vanik always was a couple years ahead of the pack. The political buzzword of 1980 -- reindustrialization -- was just about coined by Vanik with his studies and reports on basic industries beginning in 1977.
He pushed for higher individual income tax exemptions before they came. As soon as he got to the House he started screaming about the oil depletion allowance (it finally was killed). Early on, he wanted a tax on gas-guzzling new cars. The tax credits for technonogy development he now seeks may soon become popular. And so on, through issue after issue, with Vanik.
The name for that is freedom of though, which comes back full circle to Charlie Vanik, gray patrician in the trademarked bow tie and black suit, sitting in his spartan office, worrying about the House he loves.
A reader's short guide to Vanikisms:
"Campaign money has deteriorated the political process, bringing greater politicization to Congress. Politics is now a 50-week affair, the time for the legislative process is encapsulated."
"More and more of our people are spending most of their time preserving their own office rather than the institution. There are too many aldermen coming here, and not enough national legislators."
"You go to a markup or a House-Senate conference and you see the vacant chairs. Sen. Russell Long [the Finance Committee chairman] holds all the proxies. That's when we need every hand and every mind."
"Campaign money causes a knee-jerk reaction in some and a legislative course is reversed, just when you think it's all lined up. You are never sure now where a member stands."
So Vanik is going, and they pay a good deal more attention to him now than when he first came roariang in from Cleveland, upsetting the House establishment with his skin-kicking of special interests.
He might be retiring as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee if he hadn't lipped off about Big Oil in the late 1950s. Most congressional people agree that kept him off the committee until some years later and slowed his advancement.
What he said in the House on March 11, 1959, was a memorable fly in Big Oil's ointment. The Eisenhower order curtailing foreign oil imports, leading to faster depletion of U.S. stocks and richer oil companies, Vanik said, would someday shackle America. Shipping routes might be closed in emergencies, and oil importers might look to the Soviet bloc.
Sounds crazy, doesn't it?