Still For Sale

Replacing the current system of special-interest money in its entirety with public financing is the only way to unblock the clogged arteries of our democracy.

THE SENATE MAY be going through the motions of debating campaign-finance reform, but the effort to weaken the stranglehold that big special-interest money has over our politics was gutted before it began. Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, signaled prior to the opening of the debate that he'd be willing to accept an increase in the limits on direct hard-money contributions to candidates' campaigns in return for passage of a ban on soft money to national party committees. That would open the floodgates to a torrent of new money from fat cats.

A study released last week by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group shows that, while a soft-money ban would have removed from the political system $262 million that the two national parties raised from special interests in the last election cycle, raising the $1,000-per-election limit on hard-money contributions to just $2,500 would replace it with $318 million in new money from the wealthy. That's an additional $56 million, or 21percent more than produced by the current soft-money system. Those holding elective federal office would still be indentured servants of their fundraising machines under the sellout Daschle proposal, and our feckless legislators would still have to spend an outrageously huge portion of their time going hat in hand to the privileged.

As political analyst Charles Cook wrote in the Capitol Hill weekly Roll Call, "Republicans raise more soft money than do Democrats, but a higher proportion of Democratic party funds come from soft dollars... Furthermore, the GOP committees have traditionally been more dependent on direct mail contributions usually in small denominations from individual contributors, than Democrats, who are, proportionally speaking, more reliant on large, individual donors."

Why, then, is Daschle taking a posture that would apparently place his party at a money disadvantage? Because, as the New York Times correctly noted in a stinging editorial on Sunday, "Democrats... have long championed reform knowing that it would not pass." Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, Utah's Robert Bennett, and other GOP leaders of the anti-reform bloc have promised to filibuster to death any bill that limits the amount of money that either parties or candidates can raise. And even in the improbable event that supporters of the loophole-ridden McCain-Feingold bill manage to pick up the additional 11 votes from Republican senators they'd need for a 60-vote super-majority to shut down a filibuster, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has said that money limitations would be killed in the House.

Soft money, of course, is but a small part of the problem: It accounts for only an eighth of the more than $2.1 billion spent in the last cycle on federal elections alone. And eliminating soft money would hardly make it more difficult for big donors, who could easily disperse their huge contributions into legal hard dollars. Take the Fanjul family, sugar barons who put more than $900,000 into federal campaigns last year. They gave $141,000 in direct contributions to candidates and another $135,000 through PACs from family members; $128,000 from seven executives of their companies; and another $500,000 in soft money from 13 companies they control. If the money was carefully reapportioned, the Fanjuls could stop giving soft money altogether and still donate $850,000, nearly as much as they did before. That's why replacing the current system of special-interest money in its entirety with public financing is the only way to unblock the clogged arteries of our democracy.

Meanwhile, new influence-buying scandals continue to surface, the latest involving HUD. A draft report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general shows that under Andrew Cuomo, the department squandered hundreds of millions by awarding no-bid contracts to Clinton campaign contributors. For example, over the objections of career contracting officers, HUD renewed a $20 million contract with the Big Six accounting firm Ernst & Young, less than one month after the company gave Clinton's '96 campaign $132,000. That's just one of 39 contracts of questionable legality targeted by the IG's report. Another contract with Lockheed Martin to operate HUD's computer system, originally $525 million when first awarded in 1990, has been changed under Cuomo to allow for cost overruns that could total an eventual $1 billion. As of June 1 there have been 41 funding modifications to the contract with Lockheed Martin--an equal-opportunity corrupter that has given both Democrats and Republicans huge sums.

This incipient HUD affair has been largely ignored by the mass media: After all, isn't Marv Albert's kinky sex life more important than ending legal political bribery? And the irrelevant Senate debate drones on, and on...

 
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