Curley, Congress, and Campaign-Spending Reform

IN his masterful biography of James Michael Curley, Jack Beatty compares the bad old days of that Boston Mayor with politics of today.

"Put Curley's peculations into this age," writes Mr. Beatty in "The Rascal King," "and they would show as no worse than the norm in a political system polluted by Big Money. We need to keep that in mind as we return to his age to expound the crookedness of this `crooked' mayor."

Beatty concedes that things are different from when bosses like Mr. Curley and their machines ruled our great cities. "In the past," he asserts, "politicians took bribes, but the practice was illegal, so the standard of political virtue was preserved.

Now, thanks to the campaign reform act of the 1970s, it is legal to take bribes so long as they are `declared.' "

Then Beatty moves to this indictment of the present-day political scene:

"Congressmen and senators spend much of their time cadging declared bribes from groups that have an interest in legislation. In this way they annually collect hundreds of thousands of dollars meant to finance their reelection campaigns. The congressmen are not corrupt; the system is."

I had just reached this spot in the book when the New York Times arrived, and the lead front-page headline caught my eye: "Clinton Rebuffed on Plan to Reduce Election Spending."

The smaller headlines that followed were these: "Democrats Fail to Agree," "Signs of Retreat on Campaign Pledge After a White House Session with Legislators."

The article pointed out that in a meeting with leading Democrats at the White House, President Clinton really had gotten nothing more than the usual fluff in his initial effort to deliver on one of his principal campaign promises: To cut maximum political-action-committee contributions to a candidate from $5,000 to $1,000; and to place voluntary spending caps on House and Senate campaigns and provide some public financing to candidates who abide by the caps.

The White House get-together had been a pleasant one. The Democrats had agreed that something should be done about financing campaigns. But no specifics were discussed. And participants talking to reporters afterward said that whatever might or might not come out of these discussions, no changes would take effect until after the 1994 mid-term election.

Mr. Clinton was getting the usual treatment. The Democrats who hold a majority in Congress have led him to feeling he is on his way. But he clearly isn't going to get all he wants. And already he's faced with a delay in the application of whatever may be done.

Actually, it sounds as though the best the Democrats are going to agree to is relatively little - perhaps some token reform. I hope I'm wrong on this and that Clinton will keep banging away until he breaks down resistance and fulfills this promise.

He'll have to do it in the early part of his administration though - when he possesses his strongest mandate for bringing about such changes.

Come to think of it, President Clinton's campaign promise to provide election reforms may be the one that he's most likely to have to answer for if he doesn't deliver. Wherever he went and talked to people, he found anger being expressed over these "declared bribes" and over a Congress that was again and again soiling itself with unsavory conduct - like using its House bank to kite checks.

Beatty scolds members of Congress, too, for the way they spend their ill-gotten campaign contributions. He points out that in a survey of congressional spending for the 1990 election, the Los Angeles Times found that 65 percent of the $445 million spent by congressmen and senators on getting reelected went for "items that had little or nothing to do with winning the support of ordinary voters."

One congressman spent $200,000 on an election in which he had no opponent. Four others used campaign donations to pay their mortgages.

Another, also unopposed, spent $100,000 for meals, travel, and salaries for his staff. One bought a Lincoln Continental.

And on it went.

"In this age of tumescent corruption," Beatty observes, "American politics is its own Mencken. It satirizes itself."

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