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Washington as Money Junkie

Posted on Monday, Apr. 25, 2005
Knight Ridder Newspapers


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

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(KRT) - Tom DeLay may be right in saying he isn't doing anything that others haven't done. Maybe the House majority leader is more a reflection of the problem than its chief cause.

The problem is dual: money and arrogance that feed on each other.

At the heart of our troubles in Washington lurks a menace that, in the past few years, has grown geometrically. It is the ubiquitous and seemingly insatiable appetite for large and repetitive injections of private political money - in bigger and bigger doses.

The root of all evil, Scripture warns, is the love of money. It is addictive. The narcotic, supplied gladly by those who want something from presidents and lawmakers, feeds a habit that demands more and more massive fixes.

Fifty years ago, in my own first race for Congress, I raised and spent less than $35,000. Last year, in an adjoining district, the expenditures of two competing candidates amounted to more than $4 million each.

When Nelson Rockefeller spent an estimated $12 million running for the GOP presidential nomination in the 1960s, that sum was considered scandalously high. Candidates last year made it look pitifully small. In 2000, George W. Bush reportedly raised and spent in excess of $200 million.

Congress members of both parties tell me that nowadays they are forced to engage in continuous, year-round fund raising. One confessed to me last year that he spent approximately three hours of every working day on the telephone, begging donations from wealthy contributors.

Who lost? The public, that's who. Those who thought their taxes were buying the wisdom, experience, energies and full-time service of legislators.

My confidante lost that election. For all his swallowed pride and multiple hours of calling, the other guy raised more campaign cash - and won.

There are 435 House seats. Last year, in 98 percent of these districts, the contestant who spent more money won. Our nation might as well have put those public offices up for auction to the highest bidder.

It is fundamentally undemocratic that money buys elections. Most disgraceful still, campaign contributors are actually buying laws - public policy.

Don't misunderstand - contributing to political causes in which one believes is, for many conscientious people, an act of good citizenship. But it would be naive to assume that all, or even most, of the really big donations are altruistic expressions motivated solely by love of country.

Some, having backed a losing candidate, routinely help the winner pay off his campaign debts after he's elected. What's a "friend in court" worth?

A good bit, some figure. Did the big-money players at Enron contribute so heavily out of the goodness of their hearts while hiding money in foreign accounts and bilking their employees? Is it merely coincidental that Halliburton is a principal financial beneficiary of the Iraq war?

We don't know just who composed Vice President Dick Cheney's famous energy policy brain trust. It's a safe bet, though, that they're now on the receiving end of history's highest oil and fuel prices. They are also on the receiving end of the lopsided tax cuts.

Some have tried to rationalize the big-time giving and receiving. Campaign gifts from lobbyists don't buy influence over the lawmaking process, they insist - they just gain access to the lawmakers.

Active lobbyist contributors like Jack Abramoff certainly don't want for access. Abramoff has arranged, accompanied and paid for trips for DeLay to Scotland, London, Moscow and South Korea. Abramoff reportedly has bankrolled trips for "over 100" House members (including DeLay) to Saipan - an American territory - to meet with Abramoff's clients there.

It was foreseen that these lawmakers, upon returning, would vote to exempt the manufacturers in that U.S. possession from obeying U.S. minimum-wage, anti-child-labor and other humane worker-protection laws.

That exemption prevailed.

That's the damnable part of it. The average American wage earner who loses his job when his employer, lured by sweatshop wages, closes his stateside factory to outsource production to a cheap-labor haven - well, that American worker can't afford to pay airline fares, hotel bills and other entertainment expenses for lawmakers. So the wage earner loses.

The culture has changed radically in the past 15 years. Too often these days, it is government of the people, by the lobbyists and for the contributors. Campaign finance laws need an overhaul - and a thoroughgoing rather than a gentle one.



Jim Wright is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Readers may write to him at: P.O. Box 1413 Fort Worth, Texas 76101.

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