NEW YORK — Washington, built on a swamp, has lately become a sewer of political influence-peddling. That is the real meaning of the current campaign finance scandals, which neither the president nor the Congress seem willing to address meaningfully because of their own involvement.
Yet, a great opportunity, forged from wretched excess, is now upon the capital. Public seething at politicians can be turned into a mandate for the kind of leadership little seen in the post-Watergate era. Let President Bill Clinton call up his new friends, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and bring Presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush back to Washington for perhaps the most important task of their lives: rebuilding trust in America's democratic process.
The swamp can be drained, the sewer dredged, through the establishment of a truly distinguished commission, appointed jointly by the president and the Congress, presided over by former presidents, amply funded and granted the kind of extraordinary powers needed to properly address the most corrosive threat to American democracy since legally sanctioned racial segregation was ended.
For the bottom line of the fund-raising undertaken by both Clinton and Bob Dole, and the vast majority of Congress, is a systemic corruption and perversion of the electoral process. In today's political marketplace, major corporations, as well as organized labor and trade associations--not to speak of interested foreigners--regularly bundle hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars in campaign cash to pass on to presidential and congressional candidates simply to get a hearing in Washington.
As preeminent Washington lobbyist Tom Boggs puts it, "You have got to make the contributions if you are going to compete" successfully in the congressional and regulatory marketplace.
Those who don't have such means--the people and causes often most in need of government attention who can't ante up six- and seven-figure lobbying fees--are increasingly shut out of the political process. Beyond sleaze, this represents a widespread disenfranchisement, vote-selling and favoritism on a scale perhaps unknown in this American century.
"We have long passed the point," says Wayne Thevenot, another lobbyist, "where members of Congress exercise leadership and routinely act on the basis of what they believe in, for what they think is right. They have become full-time fund-raisers and part-time representatives, whose actions reflect who gives them money and how much."
Like many congressmen and senators (who aren't talking for the record), Boggs and Thevenot believe the current congressional hearings on the finance scandals will produce little more than a reflexive and partisan response that will ignore the real issues. "Basically, the profession of politicians is getting elected," notes Boggs. "The last thing they want to do is go down this road in which they have to hurt the other guy. If you have [Fred] Thompson and John Glenn [ranking members of the Senate committee] investigating each party's practices about how you raise money . . . you're going to see Democrats and Republicans pick each other off, one after another, nothing more."
Who knows? Perhaps public anger will prove so intense that half measures like the McCain-Feingold finance-reform bill or a more modest proposal will actually come into being. But it is naive to believe that, with campaign costs exceeding $400,000 for a House seat and $4.4 million for an average Senate race (Michael Huffington spent $27 million of his own money on his losing campaign for the U.S. Senate), lobbyists and incumbents won't turn any bill that makes it through Congress into a sieve. This happened after Watergate. It will happen again.
If Congress can't investigate itself and the president is paralyzed by his own embarrassing predicament, is there an alternative? Could a special prosecutor be the answer? Obviously, such a prosecutor might be able to put a few public officials--not the president or vice president, on the basis of evidence to date--and contributors into the dock. But he or she would have no real way of initiating the necessary reforms. In any case, whoever the most prominent malefactors may be, the corruption in Washington is pervasive. As matters stand, whatever individuals go down, others will pop up. The problem is the whole system of campaign finance as it has evolved over the two decades since Watergate.
And Sen. Thompson's current hearings, it is now obvious, will avoid asking the relevant variant of the question asked a generation ago by Thompson's mentor, Sen. Howard Baker: "What do most members of Congress know about their own vote selling and when did they realize that they could be had through campaign contributions?" There is far more convincing evidence about the selling of Congress than there is about the selling of the presidency.