It’s Money That Matters

Written by David Corn on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

A similar
acclimation–call it a benumbing–has occurred throughout Washington.
In recent weeks, there’s been an avalanche of evidence that the nation’s
capital reeks of institutional corruption. Granted, that’s no news flash.
Almost daily, the campus paper, The Washington Post, exposes a money-and-politics
outrage. Yet there is little anger, and, consequently, little change. Last month,
Senate Republicans, using parliamentary procedures, blocked passage of the most
lightweight of reform measures, a bill advanced by Senators John McCain and
Russ Feingold to abolish soft money–the mega-contributions from corporations,
unions and millionaires that both parties use without shame to circumvent restraints
on political fundraising.

Even had
this legislation passed, it would not have redressed most of the ills. High-priced
K St. lobbying that skews the legislative process, pay-to-play campaign contributions,
pork-barrel projects that rob taxpayers of their hard-earned dollars–this
corruption is routine. Its exposure causes little discomfort for the culprits.
In explaining why business interests this year are giving equally to the House
Democratic and Republican campaign arms (after heavily favoring the GOP in recent
years), Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign
Committee, told the Post that business donors, realizing the Democrats
may win back the House, are hedging their bets: "Major corporate donors
want to be able to enjoy the same access as they do with the current majority…
For them, it’s a business proposition."

They are
buying access–and the Democrats and Republicans are eagerly selling it.
To put it mildly, members of Congress deciding with whom they’ll discuss
legislative matters based on campaign contributions does not seem to be in the
public interest. Yet Kennedy is not bashful in acknowledging this blatant access-peddling.

In another
ho-hum-inducing story, the Post noted that Kennedy and the House Democrats
had assiduously courted Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas gambling king. Wynn was pissed
at the Republicans for failing to smother an antigambling initiative in Congress.
After four years of sweet-talking–Rep. Charles Rangel was chief Romeo for
the Democrats–Wynn offered to donate up to $1.5 million in soft money to
the Democrats’ project to regain the House. How do you think that might
affect Democratic leader Dick Gephardt’s view on casino-related legislation?

But Kennedy
and his band are pikers in moneygrubbing when compared to Rep. Tom DeLay, the
Republican majority whip. DeLay’s been busy pioneering new ways of drawing
dollars into politics as he solicits donations in the $100,000 range for a new
organization that’ll run ads and phone banks to benefit specific Republican
candidates. In so doing, DeLay is undermining the intent of campaign finance
law that limits donations to candidates to $1000 and compels candidates to make
public the names of the high-rollers who support them. He is setting up a middleman
operation that won’t have to reveal the names of its donors, effectively
rounding up anonymous backers who will hold secret IOUs from the GOP. It’s
a throwback to the old days of politics, when behind-the-scenes moneymen provided
cash in envelopes to their favorite pols in return for A-1 service. Democrats’
claim that DeLay’s project is illegal haven’t slowed him.

DeLay has
enlisted a bevy of corporate lobbyists as key members of his money machine.
This is how he operates, according to a profile in the Post: "The
eight-term Houston congressman offers key Washington power brokers a straightforward
deal: a seat at the table to plot legislative and political strategy in exchange
for help in passing the Republicans’ agenda and financial support for GOP
candidates." Could there be a more honest description of influence-selling?
DeLay’s kitchen cabinet includes lobbyists for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,
the real estate industry, BellSouth, Microsoft, the insurance industry, UPS
and other corporate interests. And he is blunter than Patrick Kennedy about
his m.o.: "It’s in [the lobbyists’] interest to keep a Republican
majority, and it’s a way to keep a Republican majority and get our job
done. It’s sort of ‘Scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’"
Who, then, is scratching for the public?

interest lobbying appears to be dominating Congress more than ever before. And
it’s not just because DeLay is letting corporate lobbyists set the agenda
of the House. Sallie Mae, the Washington-based student-loan provider, hired
three former members of Congress as lobbyists, spent $1.1 million on lobbying
in the first half of this year, and–shazam–was able to get a multimillion-dollar
break quietly slipped into unrelated legislation. The measure would change how
student loan rates are calculated and could mean an additional $692 million
in profits for Sallie Mae. Schering-Plough, the drug firm, has been lobbying
Congress to extend its patent protection on Claritin. A dose of the antihistamine
costs up to $2.66; generic drug manufacturers say they can make a version for
50 cents. Clearly, users of the drug would not gain from such patent protection.
So why even consider it?

That question
didn’t stop Schering-Plough. It doubled its lobbying effort to $4 million
a year and deployed lobbyist Peter Knight, a Gore crony, and Linda Daschle,
the wife of the Senate minority leader. The company also has dished out hundreds
of thousands of dollars in contributions to Democrats and Republicans. If this
campaign succeeds, Rep. Henry Waxman remarked, it "would send a simple
message that if you spend enough money and hire the right lobbyists you can
get a law that harms consumers."

Money is
everywhere in the political system. Organizers for Bill Clinton’s presidential
library have collected $20 million in pledges. From whom they won’t say.
This money-shaking is being overseen by Terry McAuliffe, the ubiquitous Democratic
fundraiser who is also raising money for Hillary Clinton and advising Al Gore.
(He was the Clinton buddy who offered to back the mortgage of their new house
in Westchester, before the Clintons snagged a better deal that needed no guarantor.)
Here we have the President receiving generous gifts from individuals who might
have business with the government. The Post reported that San Francisco
developer Walter Shorenstein has pledged $1 million, supermarket tycoon Ron
Burkle may kick in up to $10 million and Fox Family Worldwide chairman Haim
Saban has promised to write a check for millions. There’s nothing illegal
in this. Ronald Reagan did the same when he was in office. But how can the public
be confident that special treatment is not being extended to those who have
promised to help Clinton build his library?

The other
Clinton has also displayed little concern for appearances. The Democratic Party
of New York state is running ads for Hillary Clinton, the undeclared Senate
candidate, using the same soft-money loophole her husband obscenely exploited
during the 1996 campaign. It’s all in the family.

When Elizabeth
Dole pulled out of the presidential race, she groused, "The bottom line
is money." Overwhelmed by the $50 million or so George W. Bush had raised,
Dole was more accurate than perhaps she intended to be. The political system–including
the legislative process–is awash in big-money. The stink, though, has become
so constant, it is hardly noticed.

Bucks Before Brains?
most entertaining aspect of the pop-quiz to-do was the reaction from George
W. Bush and his merry band to the news he could not name three B-list foreign
leaders. Bush’s spokeswoman Karen Hughes, maintaining the test was unimportant,
noted that Bush’s top foreign policy advisers could not name the heads
of state in Chechnya, Taiwan, Pakistan and India. How comforting, for those
worried about Bush’s own inexperience in foreign policy matters. He can’t
even hire people who can get him India’s prime minister on the phone without
first having to look up the name. Then Bush, taking a spit-in-the-wind stand,
kept asserting he really was ready to be a global leader. In an interview with
Sam Donaldson, he said, "What I wish he would have asked me…is, what
do I think the United States’ role is in the world. This country has got
a choice to make, Sam. Whether we become isolationists, whether we retreat within
our borders or whether we promote peace. As president, I intend to promote peace."

What candidate
doesn’t believe in promoting peace? A few days later, while campaigning
in Florida, Bush said, "I haven’t memorized every leader’s name
yet, but I know how to lead the world in peace." How’s that? What’s
his experience in leading "the world in peace"? Obviously, Bush has
learned one thing about foreign policy: keep mentioning the word "peace."

Days later,
in South Carolina, Bush said he’d be a better commander-in-chief than war-hero
Sen. John McCain because "I’ve had chief executive experience. I know
how to set goals. I know how to make decisions. I know how to rally people."
Any midlevel business executive who’s read one of those how-to-succeed
pop-advice books can set goals. As for Bush’s executive experience, the
Texas governorship is one of the weakest chief executive posts in national politics.
The legislature meets every other year for a short time, and the state constitution
awards limited power to the governor. Bush was deftly brushed back by a fastball
from McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky: "While Senator McCain hasn’t
fired a baseball manager, we think he has some relevant experience to be the
nation’s commander in chief."

Forget asking
Bush to name who is really in charge in Russia these days. It will be fun to
see him try to keep up with McCain when they eventually debate–especially
when Bush is forced to think on his feet on topics of substance. Does Bush have
the firepower upstairs to handle issues he now knows little about? If not, there
is one fact he can trumpet: the amount of money in his campaign account.