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
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
"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.
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.
We must watch, too, the three balls the president has in play: the
"paycheck protection" provision (which more honestly should be called
"gut the unions"); formally legalizing soft money for individuals; and an
all-or-nothing provision about the prospective law's constitutionality.
The first, which Bush was willing to apply also to corporate
shareholders, was emphatically rejected by the Senate. The second would
let billionaires continue to roll over the parties and the campaigns with
unregulated six-figure "gifts," but the Senate also ignored the White
House on that. The third, which most unguardedly reveals the president's
Wild West Texas agenda, would knock out all provisions of the reform law
if his Supreme Court found even one of them unconstitutional. Thursday,
the Senate, 57-43, stiffed Bush on that, too.
There's a sixth ball: the limit to any one citizen's gross input to
parties or federal candidates, now set at $50,000 across a two-year
election cycle, going up to $60,000 under McCain and to $150,000 under
Hagel. The bill the Senate passed runs it up to $75,000. There's a
seventh one, allowing soft-money ads that propagandize for candidates
right up to election day, which McCain and Sen. Russell D. Feingold
(D-Wis.) oppose, but Hagel and the president support in harmony with the
corporations' organizations and the AFL/CIO. Thanks to Sen. Paul
Wellstone (D-Minn.), the Senate bill prohibits this kind of sham
advertising for independent committees, as well as corporations and
The Senate bill assures that, if it becomes law, self-financed
multimillionaire candidates can be opposed by candidates with access to
millionaires, with the hard-money limits all but suspended. This is not
reform; as Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) said, it goes in exactly the
wrong direction. But this eighth ball might bounce crazily enough to
discourage Croesuses like Ross Perot or Mike Huffington from running in
the first place.
Ball nine is the Senate's plan to stop TV stations from gouging
candidates for political ads. Under the Senate bill, a 30-second ad,
which now costs $35,000 in the Los Angeles market, would cost about
$10,000. We need free air time for candidacy-qualified candidates, but
this would be a step in that direction.
Some of us whose fierce devotion to the American Civil Liberties Union
has waned as the ACLU takes tobacco-company money and defends
campaign-finance corruption are also paying attention to the provision in
McCain's bill to require funders of TV campaign-propaganda ads to
identify all donors of $1,000 or more to pay for them. The ACLU,
ostensibly in pursuit of its dismaying conviction that money is speech,
is determined to keep the identity of such donors in public elections
A small, but real first step would be cleanly abolishing soft money
without raising hard-money limits--or at least not raising them more
than, say, $500. Optimists about the continuing strength of American
democracy and the Democratic Party expect real reform to pass. I hope it
will, but I am not optimistic. Banning soft money for parties and sham
ads, while doubling hard-money limits and leaving PAC bribery intact,
will reduce the illegitimate presence of large corporations in our
politics, but will leave us with a continuingly disgraceful
election-funding system dominated by the rich.
On two separate votes, about one-third of the Senate voted last week
in favor of public funding of the public's elections. Although this
first-time development was all but totally ignored in even the most
serious of our newspapers, it is the strongest showing yet that members
of Congress might recover their integrity enough to cleanse the
campaign-finance system of the pollution that has resulted in their
Whether or not Congress is too far gone to make the system less
corrupt, as a country we should set an example for other democratic
nations by going on to abolish private money in the public's elections,
altogether. Huge corporations and billionaires are strangers to everyday
citizens, and when a stranger is trying to occupy your home, you throw
him out if you can. He has already been thrown out of Arizona, Vermont,
Maine and Massachusetts, where variations of public financed elections
have been enacted.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and company trumpet the persuasive,
albeit specious argument that public financing for the public's elections
is giving tax money to politicians. "Food stamps for politicians,"
McConnell sneered last Wednesday on the Senate floor. But elections are
not politicians' ego displays the citizens kindly sponsor, they are our
highest-level exercises in our self-education as we select our
representatives. Henceforth, we will pay for our own education. If
Congress now just closes one polluting spigot and opens another one, we
will turn them all off.
Oh, I say we will, but who knows? The evidence portends otherwise. If,
per old Henry Adams, the senators benefit themselves as usual, maybe
we'll lose our democracy--or maybe we already did, on Dec. 12. Maybe
we'll find a way to save the Republic, or to start a new democracy. But
this is a national emergency, and something fundamental can no longer be
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.
Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times