The influence of money on politics

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REPORTS now circulate that during the 1920s some $400,000 was paid to then-New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith, later the Democratic nominee for president, by a New York lawyer. The lawyer, in an unpublished section of his autobiography, had revealed the payments and explained them as a desire to encourage Smith, then earning only $10,000 a year as governor, to remain in public life. The book indicates that the lawyer, Thomas L. Chadbourne, had expected Smith then to support an increase in the New York City subway fare -- which would have benefited Chadbourne because of his holdings in transit firms -- and became bitter when Smith did not. Given the differences in salary between Governor Smith's era and now, the payment would have been the equivalent of $4 million today.

The Smith case brings up one of the perennial issues that swirl around government -- influence. Increasingly Americans have been asking: Who has influence and how was it obtained? Prosecutors, public-interest groups, and the press question the ethics of large campaign contributions to elected officials, and of the revolving-door relationship between contractors and some government officeholders.

These issues deserve persistent attention: One of the requirements of democracy is public vigilance to see that no segment of society unduly influences elected leaders.

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At the same time Americans should note that the ethical level of politics has improved enormously in recent decades. The most obvious example is bribery. For most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, old-fashioned bribery was common, despite sporadic efforts to squelch it. Members of Congress and governors were not immune. Today bribery occurs seldom. When it is alleged, as in the Abscam cases, it gets attention and results in harsh punishment.

Conflicts of interest are also watched more carefully. Campaign contributions are recorded, because of the requirements of recent federal law.

Change in the climate of public opinion has brought about these improvements. On balance Americans are much less tolerant of bribery and unethical behavior among their political leaders than were their 19th-century forebears.

Yet it is no time to relax the pressure for improvement. Much progress remains to be made. Today as in the past, the proximity of business interests to government requires watching. Large contributions gain for donors special access to public officials to plead their positions: Does this influence votes and, in any case, is it fair to those with shallower pocketbooks?

Americans ought to go further to compare campaign contributions and decisions by members of Congress, and to make that information public. Yet there should be no overreacting: Most large donations are made to incumbents, rather than to challengers of a given ideology, in full knowledge that incumbency is the greatest single influence on the outcome of congressional elections.

Scrutiny, too, is required by the personnel interface between government and industry, and the potential for conflict of interest. For a variety of reasons, mostly political, defense firms wield disproportionate influence over government. Public officials, as representatives of the American people, ought to have discovered long ago some of the violations of ethics and proper contractual performance by several defense contractors that are coming to light.

It is difficult to excuse either the donation or receipt of some $67,000 in gifts that General Dynamics, a major defense contractor, paid to now-retired Adm. Hyman Rickover. In addition, top executives move freely between government employment and jobs in industry, often the very industries that as public officials they have been dealing with.

Finally, it is up to the American press to keep the pressure on for higher ethical standards in government. Scholars say the media's vigor in recent decades has helped raise public standards for ethical conduct in government, and it has achieved a clearer accounting of that influence.

The long chain of special favors sought from government -- from before Al Smith's case to today's networking among special interests and public officials -- requires constant vigilance. ----30--{et

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