Column: Close, but No Havana

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

Congress has finally erected a floodgate to stem the torrent of legal bribery in politics euphemistically known as soft money. This engineering feat was hard won, long overdue, and relatively solid in accomplishment; thus it would be too jaded to dismiss the legislation as less than a historic watershed. On the other hand, it would be too optimistic to praise the bill, as columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. has in Churchillian words, as"the end of the beginning" in the fight to conquer campaign finance corruption.

Money in the hands of politicians, as we all know, acts like a narcotic. It gives them a nice warm buzz, makes them supremely confident in their posturing--if not a bit goofy--and its absence causes endless stewing over the whereabouts of their connection. On Capital Hill one can spot the poor dears going through sudden withdrawal. Producing prodigious beads of sweat and shaking with abandon, they repeatedly check their watches and peer up and down the halls:"Is he here yet? Damn it's hot in here! Is my Rolex fast? Somebody call all the hospitals!"

As we also all know, where there's that kind of demand there will always be a ready supply. And because lawmakers possess the happy liberty of writing their own laws, you can bet your bottom ballot the supply will be abundant--and legal.

Indeed, one can already start swooning"The Party's Over" with respect to reform celebrations, at least it should be. In the first place, McCain-Feingold does nothing substantive to restrain third-party"issue ads," those purportedly independent and occasionally laughable TV-shorts that rip the lungs out of any pol the group finds in disfavor, such as the Family Research Council's contemptible little spot that compared Tom Daschle to Saddam Hussein because the former opposes paving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We'll always have the Gary Bauers of the world right there for us in our living room.

Second, bribery by any other name is still bribery and hard money is merely another name for soft money's intent: unwarranted individual and corporate-labor influence on broad public affairs. Under the new law I could toss $4000 to any congressional candidate. (Actually I couldn't, but that's an entirely different matter for which the bill, regrettably, makes no provision.) That's $2000 for the primary and $2000 for the general election. My spouse could kick in another $4000, my children $4000 apiece, and Auntie Maude still another $4000. Assuming my clan bred like Texas jack rabbits, I do believe the congressman would take my call before yours.

Furthermore, if I really wanted him to answer the phone, I could ask all my monied friends and coworkers (which again, I don't have) to give me their checks to pass along in a nifty bundle. This thought occurred to our plucky president when he was still a bumbling governor and he raked in $113 million in the process. Federal matching funds? Who needs the dang thangs.

And let us not forget that during the 2000 election cycle money from political action committees rolled by in bigger trucks than did soft money. It is disturbing indeed to read that the national parties had at their disposal nearly a half-billion dollars in soft money, but according to the Federal Election Commission, PAC-cash totaled roughly $100 million more. That number will soon pale. As a former U.S. senator recently remarked,"Now there will be an explosion of hard money, so we're back to PACs again."

Some frightening particulars are that Enron and its subsidiaries--which as I understand it, we're still counting--coughed up nearly $300,000 in PAC contributions; Arthur Andersen $640,000; and Vinson & Elkins, Enron's legal eagles, almost $200,000. That political soiree may not have lasted, but while it did it was high times for insiders, and just as we'll always have our Gary Bauers, we'll always have our Enrons.

Third, the bill doesn't touch any candidate's personal funds which he or she has squirreled away. If a future Phil Gramm of the Republican Party wants to tap his wife's sizable corporate largess for a shot at public office so he in turn can"thank" his wife's employer, he can tap till the well's dry. And candidates such as Jon Stevens Corzine (D-NJ) of Goldman, Sachs & Co. can continue spending grotesque amounts of personal funds to capture a senate seat, or perhaps make a stab at the presidency, as did multigazillionaire Ross Perot (Flake Party-TX).

There's no doubt the reform bill was a step in the right direction. Constitutionally speaking we may never solve Problem Number One--the encroachment of virtually unregulated third-party issue ads--but at least with soft money out of the way we're one move closer to solving Problems Two and Three. The ultimate move to checkmating legal bribery, though, still lies somewhere down the road: full public financing of federal campaigns.

© Copyright 2002 P. M. Carpenter

Fifth Columnist is published weekly by History News Network and

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More Comments:

Pierre Troublion - 3/27/2002

Another brilliant analysis from Mr. Carpenter.

My only quibble is with the final statement, because I think we can set our sights a little higher as we try to get American politics out of the gutter. Public financing of campaign spending would only provide a cleaner and less corrupting source
of support for an inherently disgusting and demeaning practice. I refer to the marketing of politics and politicians through moronic sound-bite ads, as if choices about government and public policy are like choices between deodorants or detergents. The delusion that "speech is money" will not stand the test of time. We banned cigarette ads because tobacco is hazardous to public health. Our political system will also be healthier when we similarly restrict political ads. Other democracies do this, some day America can wake up too. Slavery was "constitutional" once, that didn't mean it had to last forever.

John Moser - 3/27/2002

Anyone who doubts that the real purpose behind so-called "campaign finance reform" is to muzzle speech should read Mr. Carpenter's fourth paragraph. Here he complains that "McCain-Feingold does nothing substantive to restrain third-party 'issue ads,' those purportedly independent and occasionally laughable TV-shorts that rip the lungs out of any pol the group finds in disfavor, such as the Family Research Council's contemptible little spot that compared Tom Daschle to Saddam Hussein because the former opposes paving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

Translation: I don't like the Family Research Council's politics. McCain-Feingold does nothing to stop the FRC from expressing its views on the public airwaves. Therefore McCain-Feingold is flawed.

We should all be very afraid.

John Moser
Ashland University