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If Ever All Apples Are Rosy, It's Not in Politics

April 23, 1989|ROSS K. BAKER | Ross K. Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University

Alert readers of last Wednesday's Washington Post might have noticed a strange similarity between two front-page articles on widely differing topics.

One reported the consternation being expressed by scientists in the aftermath of the withdrawal from supermarket shelves of apples treated with the chemical Alar and the concern that the recall was based more on public fear than on certifiable danger to consumers. The second article concerned the deep pall of pessimism settling over House Democrats in the aftermath of the Ethics Committee's preliminary findings on the conduct of Speaker Jim Wright.

The Alar story and the Wright story were linked by the similarity of two quotations. A spokesman for Lucky supermarkets explained his firm's decision to remove Alar-treated apples by saying, "We are dealing with perception here. We're not dealing with reality." Virtually the same language was used by an unnamed House Democrat who observed that newspaper headlines on the Ethics Committee's findings that featured the word scheme made Wright's transgressions seem worse than they were. He added, "The headlines just destroy you in this business and the headlines are not good. In this institution we fly or die by perceptions."

The perception of Wright as a malefactor despite the anemic standard of proof used by the Ethics Committee--that there was "reason to believe" that Betty Wright's salary and emoluments from Texas developer George A. Mallick were a disguised gift to the Speaker and that Wright took book royalties instead of honoraria to circumvent limits on outside income--is much like the knee-jerk reaction against any substance added to food products. For an agricultural chemical, no matter how minute, to be discovered in foodstuffs or for a politician to have a business involvement, no matter how innocuous, generates the same damning headlines. In both instances they generate panic and recrimination and produce outcomes that do not always serve the public good.

Political reformers and consumer zealots share the same rigid and pitiless characteristics. They postulate a degree of perfection in their potatoes and their politicians that has the effect of shrinking the available pool of both commodities. The precisionists at Common Cause and the Ralph Nader groups are now well along in the sustained campaign to separate government from politics and to protect the holy relics of public policy from the annoying shortcomings of ordinary mortals.

The public landscape is littered with the monstrosities of recent mindless efforts at political reform. The political action committees, or PACs, that have come to dominate our political campaigns are a direct result of the successful efforts by 1970s reformers to reduce the influence of individual contributors. Rather than rely on a simple requirement for the disclosure of political contributions from individual donors to federal candidates, we now limit individuals to $1,000 in donations for each election while PACs may kick in $5,000. There is no practical reason why a candidate should not accept $1 million from an individual so long as the contribution is duly reported. Let the candidate who takes the donation worry about explaining to the press and public as to why a single individual would want to lavish such generosity on him.

Instead, we have a new bureaucracy--the Federal Election Commission--to monitor compliance with the stringent limitations and an extensive and creative system for evading the spirit and letter of the law. Our reformed federal election finance procedures are a bonanza for lawyers specializing in subterfuge and the effect of big bucks is as pernicious as it ever was.

If you approach politics with the assumption that people in elective office are basically rotten and not to be trusted, it is important to insulate the institutions of government from their wickedness. The people, moreover, cannot be relied on to oust the corrupt few, so what you do is hedge the decent majority of politicians with a constantly expanding thicket of restrictions.

Typically, this does little to foil the accomplished knaves. With dreary regularity, however, decent guys like Jim Wright step on a thorn. Public-interest groups, special prosecutors and their media allies who pick up the scent of blood rush to proclaim the wound to be mortal.

There may be a better world some place where all the apples ripen to rosy perfection without the use of sprays or additives and where politicians approach the Platonic ideal of being philosopher-kings. Here on Earth, nature is not always so obliging and you may need to incur a slight amount of risk with both lettuce and legislators.

Without that tolerance for a little imperfection, we'll end up with politicians who look a little like those sorry, shriveled fruits and vegetables that you see so often in health food stores.

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