Money - the root of all government

The 1984 presidential election is just around the corner. I cannot remember when the public showed more dissatisfaction and uneasiness over the way we pick a president. Now comes a concise new book (165 pages) by Elizabeth Drew expanding a series she wrote for The New Yorker and called ''Politics and Money: The New Road to Corruption.'' It deals with one aspect of the problem, how the present system of raising and spending campaign funds is degrading the democratic process. I have watched the process for a good many years. I have a feeling that the public is worried and may be getting ready to do something about it.

You can't laugh off Elizabeth Drew. She knows her stuff. She quotes the right people. She is not ideological. She is neither radical nor conservative. She simply feels that America is not getting as good a government as it deserves. Look at that federal deficit (will it be checked at $200 billion?). Look at the discouraged voters who don't vote. The percentage has gone down like a flight of steps for five presidential elections. It stands at 54 percent. (In Canada it's 75 percent.)

''The public knows that something is very wrong,'' writes Elizabeth Drew.

''As the public cynicism gets deeper, the political system gets worse. Until the problem of money is dealt with, the system will not get better. We have allowed the basic idea of our democratic process - representative government - to slip away. The only question is whether we are serious about trying to retrieve it.''

She is talking particularly about financing parties and candidates. Congress was aware that something was wrong here. In 1974 it passed a law setting limits on contributions to presidential campaigns and establishing public financing for presidential elections. Watergate revealed that large, illegal corporate contributions had gone into Richard Nixon's election in 1972, and that individuals had contributed hefty sums. Top contributors, for example, put up more than $2 million. Ambassadorships were traded for political support. But 1974 reforms, Miss Drew argues, haven't held up: They are a ''myth'' or a ''joke.'' The two political parties have less discipline and power and lobbies, public interest groups, and special contributors are methodically entering the field.

''The result of all this,'' argues Miss Drew, ''is that the basis on which our system of representative government was supposed to work is slipping away, if it is not already gone. The role of the public representative has been changing dramatically in recent years. The processes by which Congress is supposed to function have been distorted, if not overwhelmed by the role of money.''

Is this an exaggeration? The tone is so quiet, so restrained, so low-keyed that it is hard to believe that Miss Drew sensational-izes. She notes that if political parties were stronger they could exercise greater discipline over the party war chest, as they do in other democracies. She compiles instances and quotations. In fact I think she is just setting out what most of Washington very matter-of-factly accepts.

''The processes by which Congress is supposed to function have been distorted , if not overwhelmed, by the role of money,'' she says. ''The ability of even the best of the legislators to focus on broad questions, to act independently, or to lead has been seriously impaired. . . . The nature of the kind of person who might enter national politics is changing. . . . Many estimable people are concluding that they would prefer not to enter at all.''

In 1980 an ingenious conservative group found another way to route private money into a presidential campaign, a loophole called the ''independent committee.'' All perfectly legal. The device undercut the idea of public financing of presidential campaigns: that the two candidates would run against each other on an equal financial basis. The idea caught on. In 1976 only about $ 2 million was spent ''independently''; in 1980, however, $12 million was spent independently in Ronald Reagan's behalf - only $46,000 in Jimmy Carter's.

The Supreme Court confused things. The court in 1976 ruled that some of the proposed congressional restrictions on big would-be campaign spenders were a violation of donors' rights - the guarantee of freedom of speech for example. The court rather ambiguously held that the independent expenditures did not (in its words) ''presently appear'' to pose any problems. Maybe the court will decide differently as things develop. For the minute there is extraordinary confusion. Back in Mark Twain's ''Gilded Age'' politics and corruption were intertwined. Elizabeth Drew argues that nothing as sordid as that is likely but that there is a ''new road to corruption.''

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