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Where Big Donors Tread, Big Favors Seem to Follow

Politics: Not even a public outcry over workplace deaths can drown out the sound of money, critics say.

September 23, 1997|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The gruesome 1992 murders of four teenage girls, shot and then burned late one night in a Texas yogurt shop, focused national attention on a shocking problem: Murder had become the leading cause of workplace death among women.

With night clerks in convenience stores and fast-food restaurants particularly vulnerable, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration finally decided to act in 1995 by proposing voluntary safety guidelines for retail outlets.

Who could possibly object? OSHA soon found out. The convenience store industry, deriding OSHA's voluntary guidelines as a misguided intrusion into its business, enlisted 108 members of Congress--many of them recipients of its campaign contributions--to sign a letter that lambasted the guidelines. The letter torpedoed OSHA's efforts.

To critics of today's campaign-finance system, the fate of the OSHA proposal perfectly illustrates how members of Congress can be unduly influenced by political donors, even when the public welfare is at stake.

"It is a subtle form of corruption," an angry Robert B. Reich, secretary of Labor when the issue played out, said in an interview. "There were all sorts of warnings that we must not move forward with this. It came from lobbyists, congressional staffers, members of Congress."

Politicians, by contrast, insist that they are able to set aside petty considerations and base their decisions strictly on the public interest. If they share their contributors' agendas, they say, it is because their own credos attract like-minded supporters, not because they bend their positions to suit their benefactors.

No matter who is right, the potential for influence-peddling is mounting in step with the rapidly escalating cost of winning federal office. Disclosures about both Democratic and Republican fund-raising practices before the 1996 elections reveal a sharp departure into unorthodox and aggressive methods of getting money.

"People are buying their way to power," said Jamin B. Raskin, a political finance expert at American University. "It wasn't always this way. In the past, you had to earn political power."

One casualty appears to be public trust, such as it was, in elected leaders.

"I have no doubt that the public's confidence in government has been destroyed by the current form of election financing, and, from that standpoint alone, it should be changed," said Whitney Seymour, a New York attorney active in campaign-finance litigation.

Corporate influence in Congress also causes real economic damage that measures in the billions of dollars, most often the result of blocking needed reforms of economic and business policy, according to reform advocates, political experts and former bureaucrats.

On other occasions, as with the voluntary safety guidelines for retail outlets, the government favors corporate interests over the public health and safety, critics say. And there is a constant stream of special tax breaks and subsidies to sick industries.

'A Little Twist Can Make a Zillion Dollars'

The most egregious government giveaways almost never involve highly visible issues but, rather, obscure ones that can be enormously beneficial to special interests, said Kenneth Gross, an election-law expert at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

"A little twist can make a zillion dollars," said Gross, a former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission. "Nobody could figure these things out in a million years."

To be sure, critics are hard pressed to show that these favors would not have been granted even in the absence of campaign contributions. American history is full of giveaways that enriched special interests in the process of building the world's most powerful economy: the railroad land grants, federal water projects, and technology giveaways by the Pentagon, to name three.

"There is no question but that people who contribute have access and may get some benefits," said Herbert Alexander, a political-finance expert at USC. "But it is not quite as seedy a situation as many would have us believe."

The difference today is that the power of big business, as business itself boasts, has never in recent history been greater.

"The influence of corporations on public policy is growing," said Bernadette Budde, senior vice president of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee. "Of course, it is a positive. In some way, we are all beneficiaries of a thriving economy."

When corporations repeat their standard reasons for contributing to political candidates--not to manipulate government decisions but merely to have access to the decision makers--some political veterans can barely keep a straight face.

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