Dodging Bullets

LAST THURSDAY'S MEETING of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee--charged with the investigation of campaign finance--was a mess. Democrats and Republicans stared daggers at each other from opposite sides of long rectangular tables as they repetitively regurgitated sound bites designed to prove that, if the probe is currently stalled, it's the other fella's fault. The Democrats, under orders from the White House relayed by Minority Leader Tom Daschle, have been told to kick up as much of a ruckus as possible in order to undermine the credibility of the committee's public hearings, which begin July 8. The Republicans, under orders from Majority Leader Trent Lott via hard-right GOP whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma (the chief leadership watchdog on the committee), beat down all but a handful of Democratic requests for subpoenas of Republican fat cats and front groups.

With the first phase of hearings planned to take up only the issue of laundered illegal foreign campaign cash, at the rate things are going the committee will never get to dissecting the insidious influence-buying by soft-money contributors that is the most corrupt component of the current system. And that will suit both Lott and Daschle just fine. Neither wants to leave his party's coffers dry as next year's congressional elections approach.

The plain truth is that neither party is prepared to challenge corporate America's right to buy off policymakers and lawmakers at will. And it's working stiffs who wind up footing the bill. Case in point: The June 30 issue of The Nation carries a first-rate cover article by Bill Mesler headlined "Sprintgate." It's the story of how the telecom giant and its conservative Republican chairman, Bill Esrey, bought off the White House: first by hiring Clinton pal Webster Hubbell for $90,000 before he was hauled off to the slammer; then by coughing up campaign cash; and finally, just weeks before the '96 elections, by Esrey's personal endorsement of the Clinton/Gore ticket.

In 1994, Sprint shut down a San Francisco-based Hispanic subsidiary, La Conexion Familiar ("The Family Connection"), just days before its workers were to vote on joining a union. At the time, Labor Secretary Robert Reich promised he'd revoke Sprint's contract with the Labor Department. But that was before Esrey started buying the White House. Now, writes Mesler, "three years after the La Conexion workers were fired, and months after a National Labor Relations Board order to rehire the employees and pay them back wages, they still haven't seen a dime from Sprint... and despite the Administration's promises to take on Sprint, it has yet to discipline the company."

But that's not all. Sprint also got:

* Justice Department approval for Sprint to form a $4.2 billion cartel with France Telecom and Deutsche Telecom under the name Global One;

* The delay and watering-down of a NAFTA report critical of plant shutdowns that was commissioned because of La Conexion;

* A free commercial from Bill Clinton in his 1997 State of the Union message, when he praised Sprint for--get this--leading the way to "create jobs so that people can move from welfare to work."

As one La Conexion worker retorted to The Nation, "How could Sprint be telling people to get off welfare? They tried to send us onto welfare. Bill Clinton and all those high people should try working like we did for $7 an hour--and management telling you not to go to the bathroom, saying they are going to count that as low production. I came from Mexico thinking America is a country of justice. But I find it is the same as it is in Mexico: People with money get away with anything."

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