"When a man assumes a public trust," Thomas Jefferson once said, "he should consider himself public property." Today in Washington, the leaders of America's political parties are power players of the first order. And yet we do not look upon these officials or their organizations as public entities with attendant public responsibilities. Indeed, because the parties are legally constructed as private corporations, their top officials are not required to file financial disclosure reports and there are no restrictions on their becoming lobbyists after leaving the parties' employ.
While most Americans regard the parties as aloof and irrelevant to their everyday concerns, and voter identification with political parties is quite low, the fact is that the Democratic and Republican parties today constitute the largest political machines in U.S. history. In the unique ambience of Washington, the intertwining of politics and commerce is routine and well-understood; like any political machine, the major parties merchandise access to power.
The leaders of these behemoths are the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican national committees. These chairmen meet frequently with the President if they are from the same party; they also meet with their parties' congressional leaders. For example, Ron Brown, the current Democratic National Committee chairman, frequently attends the House Speaker's closed-door deputy whip meetings on Wednesday mornings in the Capitol, where legislative strategy, the upcoming agenda and vote counts are frankly discussed. Brown's presence might seem perfectly reasonable if it were not for the fact that throughout his DNC tenure he has also been a paid partner in a top Washington law firm. (Among the clients it lobbies for is the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, owner of the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International.) While serving as DNC chairman, Brown has maintained business relationships with at least three private companies, solicited government business for both his law firm and the company he heads and even traveled to Japan on law firm business.
Not that this is exclusively a Democratic Party problem. Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. continued to receive income from law firms in Washington and Nevada and remained a director of a California bank while he was Republican national chairman. He once arranged a meeting between his law firm colleagues, representing Toyota, and then-Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige. Today Fahrenkopf acknowledges that the meeting had the "appearance of impropriety," but he does not believe it was improper. Current RNC Chairman Rich Bond also sees nothing wrong with this. However, to avoid any "irresponsible" or "inaccurate" criticism, while chairman he is not accepting any salary from the lobbying firm he co-owns.
Although the party charters stipulate that the position of chairman is "full-time," half of the elected national party chairmen since 1977 have received outside income from corporations or law firms during their tenure. They include Democrats Charles T. Manatt and Paul G. Kirk and Republicans Fahrenkopf and Clayton Yeutter. Half of the party chairmen since 1977 have also been registered with the Justice Department, either before or after their party tenure, as agents for foreign corporations and governments.
Nowhere is the sale of insiderism more blatant than at the national party conventions. Most Americans don't read Legal Times and thus don't realize that American Express, Time Warner, AT&T and New York Telephone each contributed more than $400,000 in cash and other support to help the Democrats pay for their convention in New York. For several thousand dollars, lobbyists could buy a ticket on the special Democratic "Victory Train" from Washington to New York City and have three hours of uninterrupted access to Democratic members of Congress. Joan Baggett, the DNC's chief of staff, told me that the Victory Train and the scores of VIP receptions in New York were done to "essentially service our donors."
Big Democratic donor AT&T also put up $450,000 in cash and other support for the Republicans' convention. Dupont, Conoco, Exxon, Shell Oil, Pennzoil and the Enron Corp. each contributed $250,000 or more to help underwrite the GOP galas in Houston.
The ethical lines are blurred on this issue. Asked about Ron Brown's possible conflict of interest, the managing partner of his law firm, Timothy May, said it was ridiculous to suggest that a Democratic Party Chairman Ron Brown
party chairman "can't employ this influence to help clients. There's no problem. It only gets into conflict of interest (when helping the client) would damage the interests of the party."