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Why Congress Is Worse Than Ed Meese : THE BEST CONGRESS MONEY CAN BUY by Philip M. Stern (Pantheon Books: $18.95; 321 pp.; 0-394-56628-9)

September 04, 1988|David Corn | Corn is Washington editor of The Nation magazine

In Washington, we have had a steady stream of money-and-politics exposes: the Pentagon scandal, the Edwin Meese scandal, the Jim Wright scandal, the Michael Deaver scandal. But these headline-grabbing affairs, important as they are, do not compare to a greater scandal, one that receives little attention because it involves no criminality--the financing of congressional campaigns.

Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese got into hot water because he directed his subordinates to make sure a defense firm trying to win a Pentagon contract received fair--if not preferential--treatment. The problem was that Meese intervened on behalf of a company in which a close associate had an interest. Imagine the outroar if Meese had taken money from a business with a pending antitrust case before the Justice Department. Well, members of Congress do the equivalent of that all the time. It's called campaign fund-raising. As Philip M. Stern argues in his well-reasoned brief against the present campaign finance system, "The Best Congress Money Can Buy," standard operating procedure for U.S. senators and representatives--accepting campaign donations from the political action committees (PACs) and top executives of the very industries and interests they legislate--is difficult to distinguish from outright bribery.

It is "unthinkable for a judge to accept money (or the slightest of favors) from a defendant or a plaintiff--or anyone with a stake in that judge's decision," writes Stern, co-chairman of Citizens Against PACs and the author of several books. "It is not unthinkable, though, for senators and representatives to do just that. They routinely accept campaign contributions and other favors from interest groups that have hundreds of millions of dollars--sometimes even billions--riding on their decisions, and no one blinks an eye."

Money and politics have always gone together like oil and oil. But in recent years, campaign spending has accelerated--the average cost of a Senate campaign in 1986 was over $3 million--making fund raising the paramount activity of candidates. Former Rep. Michael Barnes, who failed in his 1986 Senate bid, complained to Stern that he had to devote 80-90% of his campaign time to scrounging for bucks.

As campaign spending has increased, Stern details, PAC donations have exploded, increasing fourfold between 1978 and 1986. The result, Stern notes with justifiable outrage, is that the democratic process is further skewed in the favor of well-heeled interests.

Through interviews with members of Congress and lobbyists and by analyzing Federal Election Commission records, Stern demonstrates what should seem obvious: "Most PACs have a simple objective: to gain influence with--or, at the least, favored access--to congressmen and senators." That's influence unavailable to the average constituent. One lobbyist told Stern that when he requested an appointment with a senator, the senator's top aide, who had consulted a list of campaign contributions, said, "We've only got you down for $500. That's not enough."

Stern, who has championed campaign reform for 30 years, has a vision. At the end of the book, he presents a drastic but sound reform program that includes public financing of Senate and House elections and a ban on all PAC contributions. His model is the publicly funded presidential system, which has cleaned up many of the funding abuses that once plagued presidential elections. True, public financing of congressional elections would cost the taxpayers. But Stern convincingly argues that the cost of cleaner campaigns would be a fraction of the costs imposed by the present system that spews out various subsidies, tax breaks, and favors for special interests who contribute heavily to the lawmakers.

Stern's voice, full of anger, has been a lonely one for years. But the tide may be turning. In 1987, a Senate measure that would have publicly financed Senate elections and limited PAC contributions garnered 55 votes, not enough to break a Republican-led filibuster. In June, a majority of California voters supported the campaign reform of Proposition 68.

Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis has said that campaign finance reform would be one of his top priorities if he is elected President. If he is serious, he should turn to Stern's book, which is full of telling anecdotes. But until the reformers triumph, the U.S. Congress can best be described by the immortal words of Rep. Ozzie Meyers, captured on film by FBI agents during the Abscam scandal: "I'm gonna tell you something real simple and short. Money talks in this business, and bullshit walks."

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