Column: Whatever Happened to Campaign Finance Reform?

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Mr. Carpenter is earning his Ph.D. in history at the University of Illinois.


If I were assigned topics as a newspaper editorial writer, I’d kill the managing editor. I’d kill him dead and pray that it take months to replace him. For even the punitive prospect of a scalding, stinking hell for my wicked deed would be preferable to hearing 3 times a week, “Carpenter, we need another piece on campaign finance reform.”

11In just 6 months I already would have written 72 versions of the same editorial. In 36 identical cycles the first editorial would proclaim to absolutely no one’s surprise, “System Is Broken.” The subsequent headline would announce to absolutely no one’s surprise, “Congress Fails Again.”

11I couldn’t bear the déjà vu. I’d abstain from watching or reading the news for fear of espying yet another proposal for campaign reform – and thus the boss’ predestined call for a 73rd editorial. If there’s a V-chip for radio, I’d install one for NPR. To be safe I’d avoid all magazines absent a naked woman on the cover. I’d be the least-informed editorialist on earth, excepting, of course, the collective staff at the Washington Times. And each morning I’d whimper, just knowing that someone, somewhere, will make another attempt at campaign reform.

A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. So the big-cheese editor -- that demanding troll of repetitive commentary -- would have to go. Nothing else could eliminate the terror of contemplating endless, selfsame editorials.

11The last straw leading to homicide surely would have come July 12, 2001, when the House Republican leadership once again slew the monster of reason, thereby condemning columnists to ever greater heights of literary redundancy. It was on that day that the leadership – through “thuggish tactics,” as the New York Times put it – disallowed an up-or-down vote on the Shays-Meehan bill. That, you will recall, was the House version of the Senate bill that John McCain threatened to surgically but rather crudely remove Trent Lott’s manhood over, as well as leave suspicious stains on Oval Office velvet wing chairs, if he didn’t get his way.

11Clearly, McCain has not read or taken seriously George Washington Plunkitt’s fin de siecle masterpiece, A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics. As a Democratic Tammany Hall ward boss of admirable skill, Plunkitt knew that “A reformer can’t last in politics. He can make a show of it for a while, but he always comes down like a rocket.” July 12 was McCain’s explosion date.

On the other hand, my guess is that majority whip Tom DeLay sleeps with a copy of Plain Talks, even though he has memorized all 98 pages. He fights reform like Chris Matthews fights a guest ever getting in a complete sentence.

DeLay would know that Plunkitt is timeless. The latter’s anti-Enlightenment observations on the game of politics – its backroom seediness, its resistance to progress, its personal favors masked as public policy – are still right on the money. His punditry on the practice of “honest graft” can easily be read as less political history than modern tutorials offered all freshman congressmen. With prophetic self-assurance, for example, Plunkitt told his biographer that “The day may come when [politicians will] reject the money of the rich as tainted, but it hadn’t come when I left Tammany Hall at 11:25 a.m. today.”

Plunkitt simply didn’t worry about wrought-up reformers – otherwise known as decent citizens. After all, for 70 years, from 1854 to 1934, the likes of Boss Tweed ran New York politics for all but one decade. Plunkitt mocked the McCains, Feingolds, Shays and Meehans of the world because he had learned well that the secret to political longevity is astonishingly simple: “A political organization has to have money for its business,” and who better to squeeze than “the men who get the good things that are goin’?” Who indeed. When summarizing Plunkitt’s career upon his death in 1924, The Nation wrote that he was “one of the wisest men in American politics,” because he understood that “honesty doesn’t matter; efficiency doesn’t matter; progressive vision doesn’t matter.” Money does.

This is not to say that Plunkitt’s dicta could not be tweaked just a bit. He was a curious sort who openly championed the perks of barely legal graft, yet vowed he never went in for the dishonest kind, such as “blackmailin’ gamblers” or “saloonkeepers.” That, in Plunkitt’s book, was political punching below the belt. Even this big-city boss who self-confessedly “made a fortune out of the game, and [was] gettin’ richer every day” had some standards. Not so with the reigning generation of Plunkitts.

For these racketeers – that is, Tom DeLay & Friends -- blackmailing and intimidation aren’t a desperate last resort in the money race. They’re the starting guns. DeLay, for instance, has been known to greet lobbyists in his congressional office with official lists of “Friendly” and “Unfriendly” political contributors in hand, merely as a reminder to these legislative supplicants of our democratic system of government: No cash, no favors.

And you may recall the brief fuss over DeLay’s 1995 letter to each Political Action Committee that had supported the Democratic opponent of winning freshman Republican Randy Tate. Delay wrote with utmost innocence that he was “surprised to see” the PAC had opposed his friend Tate in 1994. But not to worry, consoled the majority whip. There was still time to support Randy, and that support would be “personally important to me and the House Republican leadership team.” A little reconsideration of its partisan loyalties, suggested DeLay, just might cultivate “a positive future relationship.” Damn his poetic and puzzling tongue! Such nuances of language, such bewildering subtlety.

As is well known from its press releases, today’s Republican leadership team is much gentler -- and meticulously avoids even the hint of intimidation. But thankfully, even in its state of born-again purity, the team still recognizes true intimidation when it sees it and makes no bones about outing it. Such was the case when Senator McCain reminded a couple dozen House members that they too once liked the idea of campaign finance reform., or so they said when he campaigned for them. Remember guys?

What shocking, intimidating skullduggery, insinuated House majority leader and Chairman-of-Smugness Dick Armey on Fox News Sunday. A politician sent out this political letter asking for political help, see, and “I personally take a little umbrage at that.” That’s what he said. And Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert charged on CNN that McCain’s plea constituted “a threat.” When it comes to comedy, you just can’t beat Sunday morning talk shows. But with this bunch in charge, I’m turning to prayer instead.

Someday, of course, campaign finance reform will happen, just as Congress in 1906 finally outlawed rat dung in packaged meat. Naturally, the reform bill will be less efficacious than the Meat Inspection Act, for the rodents on Capitol Hill are plenty smart.

But until that day comes, I’m going to avoid writing the same damned thing every week every congressional session, thereby saving my sanity and sparing the life of an editor.

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Michael Bingaman - 10/27/2001

I'll tell you what happened. The American people never cared about campaign finance reform. The liberals only began caring about it when it became apparent that the conservatives have begun to out fund raise them in spite of union assistance.