Agreeing to Agree


BIPARTISANSHIP--WHICH brought the Cold War, the domestic witch-hunts of the 1940s and '50s, the Vietnam War, and permanently bloated defense budgets--is once again in vogue. Currently deployed by Bubba and Newt in an attempt to stifle investigations of their ethics, bipartisanship has always been invoked to suffocate serious debate on issues of gravity.
A perfect example: Last Saturday's Washington Post reported that the Republican and Democratic Senate leaders, Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, both want to limit Senate Government
Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson's probe of campaign cash to the presidential race and scotch its investigation of the financing of House and Senate races. Neither Lott nor Daschle has any interest in an extended, televised exposé of the corrupt underpinnings of their power--and a full-scale investigation of the kind Thompson has pledged would inconveniently lay bare the systemic rot upon which both major parties have built their power.

Thompson gives every sign of being serious in wanting an unabridged dissection of money in politics not out of altruism--the establishment media usually refer to him as former counsel to the Senate's Watergate investigation of Richard Nixon while rarely mentioning his more significant background as a highly paid corporate lobbyist--but out of ambition. Thompson, a slickly telegenic sometime-actor, has read the public mood and calculates that he can fashion a white-hat image as a crusading reformer and ride it into the White House. This, of course, conflicts
with Lott's own designs on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., which become clearer every day.

Prodded by Bill Clinton, Democrats are already threatening to filibuster Thompson's request of some $6.5 million for his probe--surely a reasonable amount for even a minimal look at how the two parties raised and spent $1.5 billion during the last federal election cycle. But put aside the merits of this squabbling for a moment: It's just dumb politics, for a Democratic filibuster to thwart or truncate Thompson's inquest will hang like a stone around the necks of Senate Democrats up for re-election in 1998. Americans are in favor of a general house-cleaning, as the overwhelming (if misguided) sentiment for term limits demonstrates. Just two weeks ago, a Fox News poll on professional honesty rated prostitutes higher than politicians (55 percent for the hookers, and only 12 percent for the pols). You can't fool all the people all the time....

With Clinton having proposed what is essentially a Republican austerity budget for the voting masses that, at the same time, leaves the Pentagon and the $75 million in corporate welfare virtually untouched, it's useful to consider Clinton's giveaways to his corporate contributors.

For instance, last Friday's Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy investigative piece that laid bare the sweetheart deal purchased with campaign cash by Energy Capital Partners, which is owned by Boston businessman Alan Leventhal and Fred Siegel. After a total of five White House coffees with the president in 1995, the two men raised $3 million for his campaign, with Leventhal donating $165,000. In return, Energy Capital got a no-risk windfall when it was picked by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for a major role in a new project that was supposedly designed to make federally assisted housing more energy-efficient.

Not only did the decree establishing the project take the unprecedented step of mentioning both Energy Capital and its co-owner Siegel by name--making them the only preapproved lender to date--but the loans will be financed entirely by Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association). Another precedent breaker: if housing developers default on their loans, Energy Capital will be repaid before the government. Thus, Energy Capital's campaign cash has bought them a virtual monopoly on servicing the loan program--worth a fortune in interest and fees--and the firm will make this handsome profit while letting government (i.e., taxpayers) take all the risk.

If the Thompson hearings do nothing more than bring wider attention to the complicated machinations involved in corrupt deals like the one with Energy Capital--which the president keeps insisting were just "mistakes"--they will still serve a healthy public purpose.

Democratic and Republican leaders alike are scrambling to forestall Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson's inquiry into campaign finances before it gets to the matter of congressional races.

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