Politics & Money: Two Takes

IT may not be exactly like a Clintonesque offer to spend the night in the Lincoln bedroom in return for campaign money. But it's close.

According to a letter obtained by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) plans to allow campaign donors into a closed-door briefing on national defense. Price of admission: a $1,000 contribution to the NRCC.

If those plans are carried out, it would be another glaring example of the impunity with which the political parties and many politicians sell access to the highest bidder.

The briefing would be conducted by the chairman of the House Select Intelligence Committee, Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida. It would fit into a two-day "Economic Recovery" seminar, which also includes a session on tax issues from Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas (R) of California. Some 200 donors are expected to attend.

While sensitive secrets are unlikely to be shared, the public perception that money buys access is unfortunately reinforced. And public worry about the fine line between access and vote-buying is likely to deepen.

Every citizen has a right to know as much about national defense as its government deems prudent, regardless of wealth.

Meanwhile, the public's perceptions have led one big political contributor, the British oil giant BP, to swear off any corporate donations to parties or candidates. BP chief executive Lord John Browne explained that a company working in a democratic society has an interest in preserving the legitimacy of the political system.

He recognizes, clearly, the cynicism that can set in when big business pumps money into politics.

That enlightened point of view could well be adopted by other corporations.

Certainly some American companies have grown tired of being solicited for campaign funds - to say nothing of the bad publicity that can accompany being identified as a big contributor. Enron has darkened that image even more.

BP says it will continue to lobby in Washington to push its point of view on issues like drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. That's to be expected. Business and government have to interact. But they don't have to be compromised by the exchange of cash that turns voters into second-class citizens.

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