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Some Light at the End of the Tunnel

April 01, 2001|Ronnie Dugger | Ronnie Dugger, author of biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, was the founding editor of the Texas Observer and, in 1995, founded the Alliance for Democracy, a national progressive-populist grass-roots organization

WASHINGTON — Some 44 years ago in Austin, Texas, lobbyists gave legislators two copies of bills to introduce with $500 in cash paper-clipped to them; some legislators introduced bills just to get paid for withdrawing them. Now, the shameless open corruption I first thought was a wildcat cesspool in Texas has become the national condition.

The public owns the radio and TV airways, but we license them free to corporations, whose stations, according to the Alliance for Better Campaigns, are gouging our candidates for air time to talk with us. The cost of political ads in the last cycle approached $1 billion and total campaign spending, $3 billion. Bribery to pay for the TV-hijacked campaigns is now legalized in Washington. Votes and floor speeches in Congress are paid for by political action committees directly interested in the legislation in question, legally. Gigantic corporations and billionaires slam huge sums of new money--a hundred thousand, half a million dollars at a clip--into the campaigns through the supine political parties, legally. PAC money is called "hard" and party money "soft," but hard or soft, both are dirty. President George W. Bush has proposed to make it even worse.

Corruption, to be sure, has always been a part of government. As Henry Adams wrote in his novel "Democracy," "Democracy, rightly understood, is the government of the people, by the people, and for the benefit of senators." But this now is such a corruption that it's collapsing the American experiment in self-government. The identity and existence of the United States as a developing democracy is in doubt.

From the Senate gallery and on C-Span 2, I have been watching the debate on the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill and the president's favored alternative, a measure by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). This high drama presents us not only with a treacherous tangle of reformist and corrupted agendas, but also with the stark question of whether Congress itself is too polluted a body to reform the campaign-finance system that has polluted it.

A certain moral desperation infests the players in and around the debate because of this question. For example, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose vaunted reform bill is silent on PACs and has already been stripped of provisions for free radio and TV time for candidates, said in New Hampshire in 1999, "We . . . are the defenders of . . . an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder." Later on, he added, " . . . all of us have been corrupted by the process--and you can include me."

As best we can, now that the Senate is about to pass a further-modified McCain-Feingold bill and reform leaders of the House muse whether to try for a better bill and risk Republican mayhem to it in a closed conference committee, we need to keep our eyes on nine balls, if, as interested citizens, we are to understand the course and outcome of this fight about the corruption that has overwhelmed the American government.

"Soft money," it says on one of these balls. That is the totally unregulated millions of dollars--almost half a billion of them in the last election cycle--that corporations, unions and rich individuals shovel to the parties for their candidates' campaigns. It should not exist. The Senate-passed bill would ban it. Hagel would have permitted it but "capped" it at $120,000 per corporation, union or person each two-year election cycle. For the first time, Hagel's bill would have formally legalized the use of corporate and union treasury money (in a ratio between them of 10 or 12 to 1, as experience is our guide) in U.S. political campaigns.

The Senate rejected the Hagel bill last week, but with GOP Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) vowing to kill reform by any trick, the same issues can come up again in the struggle in the House. The ban on soft money, considered by itself, would be a signal victory for reform; but it cannot be considered by itself.

"Hard money" is the $2,000 each person or PAC can give to a federal candidate during a primary-and-general-election cycle. Since all but half of 1% of campaign contributors give no more than $400, the limit really should be cut down to around $500. Hagel and the president wanted to triple it to $6,000. The Senate-passed bill doubles it to $4,000. Banning soft money while doubling or tripling hard-money limits and keeping PACs in place leave our elections just as corrupt, just as much the property of predators and plutocrats, as they are now.

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