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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

By Skip Kaltenheuser. Skip Kaltenheuser is a Washington-based writer and lawyer. / March 14, 1994



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.

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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.

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.