excerpted from the book

The Corruption of American Politics

by Elizabeth Drew

The Overlook Press, 1999

Perhaps nothing has contributed more to cynicism about government than the hypocrisy of the politicians about reforming the campaign finance system. Numerous polls have documented that though majorities want the system reformed, they don't trust the politicians who are in the system to change it. And they've been proven right in no expecting the beneficiaries of a corrupt system to fix it. Each struggle for campaign finance reform since 1974 has met with ultimate defeat. So what reason is there for thinking there might be real reform? What reason is there to think that the politicians might behave differently?

Since the passage of the comprehensive-and for a while effective-campaign finance law in 1974, no subject in American politics has been as bathed in hypocrisy. Everyone is "for" it. But the form that "it" might take, in certain politicians' calculations, often amounts to a cosmetic change in the guise of "doing something," or to something they know the Congress won't pass, or gutting whatever laws remain. All these people at play in the fields of hypocrisy may not realize what they're doing to the body politic- or they may not care.

Disingenuousness defines many proposals, such as one, offered in recent years by Republicans, to simply require faster reporting by the candidates of contributions. The information was to be posted on the Internet. Faster and more accessible reporting would be useful, of course, but it's no substitute for real reforms. And it still would take heroic efforts by news outlets and monitoring groups to translate and give form to the reports-to find out which contributor has ties to what groups, what the company a contributor is associated with actually does and what its legislative interests were-before an election.

The reporting ruse has had as its most vociferous backer an appropriately named House Republican, Doolittle (John, of California). Among Republicans, Doolittle came to be known as "the Mitch McConnell of the House." Reformers feared Doolittle's proposal because it sounded so plausible.

The hypocrisy practiced by both political parties took other forms as well. A member would declare support for reform, but manage to not have to actually vote for it if there was any real danger that a substantial bill would be enacted into law. Thus, people could vote for a bill they knew a president would veto, or that they assumed that the other chamber wouldn't pass, and still claim credit as a backer of reform. Beryl Anthony, a former Democratic Member of Congress, and a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told me, "We used to say, 'What the Democrats pass, the Republicans wouldn't sign into law, and 'What the Republicans pass the Democrats wouldn't sign into law."'

Anthony told me of an incident in 1992 when House Democrats, about to pass a campaign reform bill, assured him, "'Don't worry, Beryl, this thing won't become law."'

Anthony replied, "What if it does? We're screwed." (It didn't, because Bush vetoed it.)

In the late eighties and early nineties, Mitch McConnell moved to eliminate PACs, on the well-founded suspicion that the Democrats wouldn't let that happen in the end, because they needed the PAC money. "He no more meant that than the man in the moon," a business lobbyist told me. "It's an example of how this whole debate has become posturing." In 1993, McConnell even offered a bill to ban soft money and to impose tight controls on "independent expenditures." But now he vigorously opposed both changes.

Representative Bob Matsui, Democrat of California, explained to me, "All of it is making sure that the dead cat is not at your doorstep when all is said and done."

One curious aspect of all this posing was that so many politicians wanted to be seen as being for reform at the same time that they were saying that "the public doesn't care."

Another form of the hypocrisy was to proclaim that one was for campaign finance reform and not lift a finger to help get it passed by the Congress. The champ at this-at creating the greatest chasm between promise and performance-was Bill Clinton...

Clinton's abandonment of campaign finance reform is often attributed to a meeting in Little Rock shortly after the 1992 election with Democratic House leaders who urged him not to push for reform. But there's scant evidence that it ever would have been a priority for him once he himself was amidst the Realpolitik of big-time fund-raising.

In his first four years in office, Clinton rarely spoke about campaign finance reform and made little effort to get it. In the succeeding years, he did in this area what he did in others: He substituted what a Cabinet officer calls "stunts" for policy-making. But the gap between real and phony action on the part of the President may have been the greatest in the case of campaign finance reform.

In 1997, for the obvious reason, Clinton displayed an ostensible new enthusiasm for the subject. In his State of the Union address, he called upon the Congress to pass a campaign finance reform bill "by the day we celebrate the birthday of our democracy-July the Fourth." (Applause)

That didn't happen, of course, and neither did a number of other campaign finance reforms that Clinton called for in the comforting knowledge that they wouldn't happen.

In each case, his aides insisted that this showed that the President was truly sincere in fighting for campaign finance reform- really, truly sincere-until some of them finally gave up the | pretense...

"There is no financial base for the core issues of the Democratic Party," he said. "I've said so in the Democratic Caucus several times. Civil rights, the environment, pro-choice-they have a voting constituency but they have no financial strength. In current American politics you can't survive without a financial constituency. One item on our agenda, education reform, is popular with the voters. That's why we're still alive. The Democratic Party is disproportionately funded by organized labor and our Jewish constituency. The Republicans have a small-donor base. We don't."

"Look at the Democratic Party agenda," Torricelli said. "It's the progressive agenda. Twenty years ago the Democratic coalition was able to compete even though it didn't have a big-money constituency-because the amounts were so much lower. And now we see a possibility of being taken out of contention."

And then he said, "If there's not the right kind of campaign finance reform, our survival will be in question. We'll have deep, thoughtful discussions about issues that will raise us money."

Torricelli added that all this, their pro-reform rhetoric notwithstanding, was why I sensed that Democratic leaders-Senate and House-didn't want to give up soft money. They didn't, Torricelli explained-pointing out that he shared this view-at least unless there were also curbs on "issue ads." Otherwise, the Republicans would still have the advantage in those, too. But, as Ed Gillespie, who had previously served as House Majority Leader Dick Armey's press secretary-one of the best I'd seen on Capitol Hill-and is now a lobbyist, pointed out, "The Democrats are trying to remove the Republicans' two greatest areas of advantage: soft money and issue ads."

Daschle's dilemma had another origin: Like some other Democrats, he was from a small state, in his case an essentially Republican one, and was dependent upon the national network of Democratic donors. Similarly, in the House, many blacks and Hispanics were dependent on wealthy contributors from outside their districts, and were loath to give up soft money.

At one point in the strategizing in 1997 on campaign finance reform legislation, the reform groups-Common Cause in particular-were willing to settle for only a ban on soft money. The theory was that past multipart bills had been too hard to get through the Congress, and that a simple ban on the greatest source of scandal would be hard to oppose.

But a Senate Democratic strategist said to me at the time, "If there were a secret ballot on soft money, only thirty-five or forty [out of forty-five] of the Democrats would be for it."

House Democratic leaders were even more reluctant to change the rules of war by getting rid of soft money than were their Senate counterparts.

A House Democratic aide said, in the fall of 1997, "Most people in the House and Senate feel they've won by the current system and they don't want to change the current system, period."

Mark Mellman, the Democratic pollster, said that the Senate Democrats were beset by three competing viewpoints on what to do. A lot of them, Mellman said, would like to have public financing of congressional campaigns, along the lines of the presidential system (before it was destroyed), but know that isn't politically feasible now. The politicians feel that they can't sell it to the public so they don't try.

"Two," Mellman said, "survival." Some Democrats, like Torricelli, felt that the "issue ads" that came in at the last minute nearly overcame their financial advantage over their opponents. Mellman said that the Democrats realized that far more was spent on ads to help Republicans than would ever be spent for them.

"Three," Mellman said, "utter contempt and distaste for what they have to do day to day to raise money. They hate it. There's nobody who doesn't think it's just a little bit unclean. They have to be exceedingly solicitous of some of the most difficult people in the world-who aren't even their voters."

Thus, the interests of the two political parties were in direct conflict-except for a few Republicans who, like Fred Thompson and John McCain, thought that supporting campaign finance reform was the right thing to do, and those who also thought it was good politics. The prevailing view of most of the Republicans was that they would do best with the fewest limits.

Trent Lott was on record, after all, that he wouldn't be in national politics if he hadn't been able to raise a great deal of money to overcome the longtime Democratic hold on his state. He had also said that limits on fund-raising would hurt Republicans, who needed to get around the "news media with their prejudices." That, plus their self-inculcated views on the power of labor, led the Republicans to resist limits.

But everyone was "for" reform.

Political Corruption

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