The Low Art of the Thinly Disguised Bribe

When lobbyists and political action committees donate money to members of Congress, they buy more than access

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MONEY in politics, passed by gloves both iron and velvet, surrounds a Congress that, as Barry Goldwater puts it, is ``paralyzed with the fear of alienating'' interest groups. Paralysis benefits the status quo and rockets the deficit. This should be our top domestic issue.

It isn't, of course, because campaign finance is Washington's hottest growth industry. Congressional races in 1992 cost $678 million, a 52 percent increase over 1990. Everyone is related to or friends with someone who milks the cash-based lobbying machine, or aspires to do so. It permeates the society scene, and even the Fourth Estate, with its own conglomerates' political action committees (PACs) and media seers who pick up speaker fees from lobbying groups.

Most important, it offers incumbents an incredible advantage. In 1990 the General Electric PAC gave money to 19 United States House candidates who faced no opponents, and to 70 more who had won past elections by margins of more than 3-to-1. Incumbents are reluctant to tamper with such a system.

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From 1982 to 1985 AT&T enjoyed tax loopholes that garnered a huge rebate instead of having to pay taxes on $25 billion in profits. Its million or so in PAC contributions fell far short of the point of diminishing returns. The late Phil Stern, campaign reform champion and author of ``Still the Best Congress Money Can Buy,'' analyzed congressional votes and showed a stunning correlation between increasing levels of PAC money given and the percentage of recipients who ``vote right.'' The cash arms race escalates because the potential gain is astounding.

Consider President Clinton's task in revamping an $800 billion-a-year health industry. Its 200 political action committees gave $60 million in PAC contributions to congressional candidates, plus individual contributions, during the 1980s.

In the mid-'80s, the American Medical Association's PAC dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars of ``independent expenditures'' (a clever sidestep around contribution limits) to attack a couple of popular congressmen who sought ceilings on Medicare fees. The failed attempt to dump them was viewed as a victory because, as the PAC chairman said, it sent ``a message to everyone in Congress who won by 51 percent.''

``When these political action committees give money, they expect something in return other than good government,'' Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole once wryly observed. Senator Dole, whose thrift-and-fortitude lectures are Sunday morning TV fixtures, gave Mr. Stern his favorite illustrations of money calling the tune. For example, in 1982 Dole chided Democrats like Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois for assisting 333 wealthy Chicago commodity traders over questionable use of a tax loophole. He even complained to the Internal Revenue Service. Traders bumped up largess to Dole by a factor of six. Dole abruptly reversed, approving a proposal that took traders off the IRS hook, worth an average of $866,000 to each trader.

Not just cynics wonder how often lawmakers make noise about what's right just to get contributions flowing so they can afford to do what's wrong. ``We're looking closely at this,'' is often code for ``It's on the block, open your wallets.'' When markers are called in they can be as subtle as a pass not caught or a ball fumbled. Don't count on a toothless Federal Election Commission, crouched under the thumb of those it watches, to follow the play.

ACS and trade associations are dominated by members who are most active because they seek the most. When the economic marketplace doesn't pan out, they gild their pitch in a political bazaar focused on the short term. It's a poor formula for rational decisions, and often tilts toward losers. Cases made on money, not merit, breed inefficient and unfair results.

It isn't just PACs. The top 1 percent of income earners provide the vast bulk of campaign cash, giving more to candidates than do PACs - huge amounts in ``soft money'' to national and state parties, and toward charities associated with legislators. They orchestrate a symphony of influence.

Yet this system is defended as a great equalizer which enables little guys to pool money in democracy's ``marketplace.'' One columnist lauded it as ``an inherently messy brawl of competing egos, ambitions, factions, and interests.''

Lobbying groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) purport to include the interests of small entities, but that's questionable when they conflict with better-heeled members. For example, the NAM advocates patent changes that clearly favor large multinationals over smaller firms.

In any case, if campaign money gives voice to the small player, it's a squeak compared to the operatic booms of those who can focus large amounts, including couples who pay $100,000 to attend fund-raising parties.

Years ago, I asked a top staffer of former US Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California how he coped with the flood of lobbying cash. His deadpan reply: ``People think if they give you a lot of money, they're buying influence. But all they really buy is access.'' Charles Keating must have thought the fiction of a wall between influence and access funny. Taxpayers were less amused as they bought his and other savings and loan fiascoes to the tune of $150 billion, plus interest on the increased debt, after thrifts bought all the access they needed to hang themselves.

Some legislators collect most of their funds out of state, choose committee assignments based on fund-raising potential, run their own PACs, and use surpluses to salt state legislators who draw congressional borders. The tyranny of the tin cup forces senators to spend most of their time fund-raising, averaging perhaps $10,000 a week over six years, with roll-call votes suspended during the ``cocktail hour primaries.'' Fancy job titles disguise the low art of the thinly disguised bribe.

Stern felt such influences fell outside the voter constituency the Founding Fathers had in mind, and saw no road back save ``disinterested'' public money. Private cash would be limited to small, pre-primary, in-state voter contributions to qualify candidates for ``citizen financing.'' Independent expenditures, and expenditures by those refusing spending limits could be neutralized by increased public financing for those in the system, who would also get cost breaks for the broadcast of substantive messages.

The cry that taxpayers must not be soaked to fund politicians is phony. The cost is minuscule next to, say, the cannibalization of industries because corporate raiders could deduct interest on takeover debt, or the urban misery catered by the National Rifle Association. No system produces perfect decisions, but we're in a percentage game where the deficit has shrunk our margin for error.

Before its fall recess, the Congress offered proposals for reform that earned kudos but no passage. Meaningful improvements can be slyly gutted in conference. Even now, loopholes are cavernous. For example, there's debate over limiting an individual's aggregate federal political contributions to $25,000 or $50,000. That's per year, and they can be doubled by a spouse and further increased by offspring who aren't minors. The House would allow ``bundling,'' (the wallop of unlimited accumulation of individual contributions), for groups that do not lobby, despite well-known criteria for recipients that leave no doubt about the expected quid pro quo. So it goes. Flowing money finds the leaks.

THE currency devaluation of our vote destroys confidence in government and eats at our collective ethics. Desperate people sadly abdicate civic rights and responsibilities in favor of term limits, or look to an ever-ironic billionaire for shelter.

Voters weary of the shell games. Who figures the National Wetlands Coalition for a group of oil companies? Some groups conceal members, (even NAM members can't get an NAM membership list). ``Housewife,'' the most frequently listed occupation of large contributors, reveals nothing.

What mentality does all this cultivate? A small US high-tech company was bewildered at hearings when Sen. Robert Packwood (R) of Oregon ran interference against it on behalf of Mitsubishi, the Japanese conglomerate. Not now. Recent allegations of special arrangements to ward off criticism of Mitsubishi are surprising only in degree. Once practices that are criminal in other branches of government are accepted as commonplace, limits start to drift.

Our system saps public confidence, cripples innovative government, and excuses legislators from making difficult choices.

Demagoguery tempts as politicians are left to succeed not with better ideas but by engineering the failure of the opposition. That guarantees a downward spiral for America. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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