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Democracy for Sale

As the 105th Congress drew to a close in October, those who tried to follow its deliberations might well have been mystified. Major legislation aimed at serving the public good—campaign finance reform, a “Patients’ Bill of Rights” to protect enrollees of health-maintenance organizations, restrictions aimed against cigarette manufacturers—had vanished, without even a vote on the merits, into the congressional labyrinths. Curiously, each of these measures had bipartisan majority support in both houses, even though there might have been differences on details. All of them had been debated on the floor or in committee. They had been subjected to hearings, commented upon in editorials, tested in polls, and found acceptable to a majority of our citizens. All of them died.

In their place, from out of the same congressional labyrinths, came a hodgepodge of special-interest legislation that had never been debated or even subjected to public scrutiny. There were loans for mohair producers, essential, we were once told, lest the brave men and women who take up arms to defend this country go to war in uniforms devoid of mohair. There was additional relief for farmers, suffering this year from the unexpected problem of good weather, which has produced bumper harvests and thus low prices. There were six helicopters for the Colombian police, some mysterious subsidies for frozen chickens to be sold in Russia, a $1 billion break for the Tennessee Valley Authority (didn’t the Republicans want to kill that supposed example of state socialism?). And there was an extra $1 billion for development of a missile defense system, a program that remains an exception to the conservative conviction that government cannot solve problems by throwing money at them.

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who led the failed battles to pass the tobacco and campaign finance legislation, proclaimed this Congress the worst he had seen in his sixteen years of service in both houses. What makes it the worst is the combination of secret action, defiant inaction, and the huge growth of special-interest campaign contributions.

Self-serving legislation secretly arrived at is, of course, even older than our republic. In his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, Charles A. Beard suggested that the very framers of the Constitution were seeking a strong federal government to secure the investments they had made on the frontier, especially to defend land bought on the cheap from Revolutionary War veterans. Over the centuries, pork-barrel spending has handily survived public outrage, promises of reform, criminal prosecution, boxcars full of newspaper editorials, and even the devastating burlesque of Kentucky’s Representative James Proctor Knott. On January 17, 1871, he took to the House floor and told his colleagues that he had no doubt that building a railroad at public expense to “that terrestrial paradise, fanned by the balmy zephyrs of an eternal spring, clothed in the sheen of ever-blooming flowers” around Duluth, Minnesota, would be “essential to the happiness and prosperity of the American people, if not absolutely indispensable to the perpetuity of republican institutions on this continent.” Yet even so, Knott said in mock sorrow, it was a misuse of the public purse, and he could not support it.

Today, in the absence of J. Proctor Knott, the public purse is guarded by dedicated and idealistic young watchdogs like Jennifer Shecter of the Center for Responsive Politics, one of several research and analytical organizations that try to keep the governmental process open and honest. The center collates campaign contributions and the resultant votes by legislators who receive them. In a current study, the “Do-it-yourself Congressional Investigation Kit,” Shecter notes, for example, that the ten House and ten Senate members who received the largest contributions from the American sugar industry all voted to preserve a sugar quota that keeps prices high for consumers. Similar matchups are made for the timber industry, the B-2 bomber, the gambling industry, and even drunk-driving legislation, among others.

Such a study cannot be made, however, for the $512 billion appropriations bill that was dumped onto the public in late October. The reason is simple and clever: there were no votes on individual items. The special-interest pork-barrel expenditures were worked out by handfuls of congressmen behind closed doors and then submitted to the full membership and the President in an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it package. No one person knew exactly what Congress had done; the final bill contained more than 4,000 pages and weighed more than 40 pounds. It was unreadable, and meant to be so.

In The Buying of the Congress, Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, another group of dedicated and idealistic young watchdogs, takes a broader view of the private money behind the congressional action and inaction. This is a vast subject, the life of America itself. The money spent by private interests to get their way with Congress affects the wages paid and working conditions in slaughterhouses, fast-food outlets, and nearly every other place of employment; the survival of family farmers; the safety of medicines; the fairness of our tax burdens; the quality of our roads; the adequacy of pensions for our elderly; the physical condition of schools; the purity of our air and water; and a good deal besides. All in some way depend on a federal governmental process that Lewis describes as “a corrupt system that perpetuates itself and besmirches all participants.”

Lewis and his colleagues at the center provide many case studies in which money seems to have been decisive in determining public policy. The examples are drawn from both parties, and while it is not absolutely clear that anyone can prove a quid pro quo—cash for a specific vote—the connections between money paid out and legislation show an unsettling linkage. For example, House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri persuaded President Clinton not to tax beer to finance his proposed health-care plan; over the past ten years, Lewis reports, Gephardt has received $318,950 in campaign contributions given or generated by the Anheuser-Busch Companies, the country’s largest brewer. Amway Corp., a major backer of the Republican Party, has received hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks for two Asian affiliates. The National Restaurant Association, which heavily supports Republicans, has successfully defeated recent attempts to increase the minimum wage.

In one of the most blatant recent cases, however, there were at first no fingerprints at all. Led by Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco, the tobacco industry remains one of the largest sources of political money in America and, with its allies in farming, trucking, and convenience stores, one of the most pervasive political influences. In 1997, a forty-six-word sentence was mysteriously slipped through both House and Senate with no apparent authorship; it would have given the tobacco industry a $50 billion tax break. It was later learned that House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi had insisted on it—and the White House had agreed to it. It quickly died under the glare of publicity.

It is virtually impossible to discover all the ways a special interest can buy access to a politician. In the old days, it was simple: the lobbyist handed over suitcases full of cash. Then came subterfuges: a lobbyist plays poker with a politician, the lobbyist loses. A lobbyist steers a politician to a sure-thing investment. A lobbyist pays a lawmaker to make a speech or write a book. Now, even with the new ethics rules and gift bans, myriad forms of gift-giving persist, some of them described by Lewis. Corporations provide charter jets to senators and congressmen in need of transportation to a speaking engagement and gain an opportunity for a private discussion en route. In theory, the politicians reimburse the corporation for first-class fare plus a dollar; of course that charge does not come close to meeting the cost of such a flight for an ordinary citizen who wanted on-call jet transportation to a destination of his choice. Lobbyists provide lucrative jobs for ex-congressmen, their wives, and their staffers, a contingency incentive for the beneficiaries to keep in the lobbyists’ good graces while in public service. Contributors can fund unlimited “independent expenditures” for advertising in support of a candidate without having to report the money to the Federal Election Commission.

Special interests can also set up respectable-sounding front groups—like Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain, financed by the coal and utility industries—to allow a congressman to pretend he is serving the public good rather than a special interest. The cynicism Lewis cites is breathtaking. Victor Crawford, a former tobacco lobbyist, explained a typical strategy to the Journal of the American Medical Association:

For example, if we wanted to get rid of [FDA Commissioner David] Kessler…I would have funded AIDS groups and got them fired up that he’s not approving anti-AIDS drugs fast enough. Raise all kinds of hell and go to Bill Clinton and get him to fire Kessler. And who would benefit? Tobacco, of course. But the AIDS people would do the dirty work because they’re so involved, and that’s how it’s done. You never leave your fingerprints at the scene of the crime.

Under the rules Congress makes for itself, contributors can also provide vacation getaways like Newt Gingrich’s $24,000 trip to London in 1997, funded by Arco Inc., the oil company, and thinly disguised as a fact-finding mission. An executive-branch official would go to prison for accepting identical hospitality.

And, finally, contributors can go back to basics and simply hand over cash. In 1995 Representative John Boehner distributed campaign contributions from Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp. to colleagues on the House floor. Campaign contributions, one should remember, can be used for a host of expenses—travel, meals, entertainment—that are only remotely related to an actual campaign.

Even when Congress passes rules against influence-peddling, they are easily circumvented. In 1997, after the gift ban was in force, Republican Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, wanted to attend an AT&T-sponsored golf tournament with AT&T executives; he accepted a campaign contribution from the company that matched his expenses—even though he has enough money in his political war chest for the next two elections. So much for the gift ban.

In return for these gifts, as this year’s final 4,000-page omnibus spending bill has shown, congressmen can pay their contributors back in ways that the public will never fathom—by shelving bills, delaying hearings, slipping a few key words into a bill during a House-Senate conference, quietly killing regulations, even halting legislation for which there is majority support. “One point on which virtually everyone agrees,” Lewis writes, “is that because of the diffusion of power, the proliferation of lobbyists, the increasingly sophisticated manipulation of information and the news media and the unprecedented amounts of money now pouring into Washington, it is infinitely easier today for special interests to stop legislation than it was in the past.”

Some of Lewis’s examples are highly technical, but infuriating nonetheless. Agribusinesses successfully resisted restrictions on the use of methyl bromide, a pesticide that can be a health hazard to human beings. Congress, he says, has repeatedly sided with agribusiness rather than consumers. The airline industry has delayed the introduction of standards that might prevent seats from coming loose in moderate crashes. “Congress has aided and abetted businesses, big and small, in their efforts to use children as low-wage workers,” Lewis writes. One of the ways is to deny adequate funding to the Labor Department, which has fewer than 800 labor-law compliance officers for the entire country.

Lewis gives fascinating details of the power of Florida’s sugar-growing Fanjul family, which finances both Republicans and Democrats, and he shows how it has been able to overcome opposition in Congress to the sugar subsidy program. He discusses such arcane subjects as the special interests behind the 1996 telecommunications bill, which whisked past the public—and most members of the Congress—without any real explanation. The bill was supposed to lead to increased competition; in fact it produced an orgy of mergers and takeovers—like Time Warner’s purchase of Turner Broadcasting or Bell Atlantic’s merger with NYNEX. And he describes the false promises about protection of American labor that preceded enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the betrayals that followed it.

In any book of this kind, there is a danger of overreaching, of seeing connections where none in fact may exist. It is hard to accept, for example, that in a dispute over occupational work rules affecting the package-delivery business, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat of legendary wealth, was influenced by the $4,062 that the AFL-CIO spent to send him and staff members on inspection trips. Nor do I believe that, on the other side of this dispute, Gingrich was especially influenced by United Parcel Service of America’s gift to him of a personalized surfboard—a contribution that could only have been conceived by a lobbyist with a fiendish sense of humor.

Not all government decisions are bought and paid for by greedy private interests. Much as liberals may dislike confronting the fact, a large number of our fellow citizens cherish their right to keep and bear arms. If in rejecting any restrictions on guns they seem absolutist about it, well, so are some of the civil libertarians who argue that any restriction on freedom of speech, even barring hard-core pornography from the children’s room at the library, starts us down the slippery slope toward censorship. The gun lobby, one of America’s most effective, has genuine local support; money from the firearms industry is negligible.

Similarly, anti-abortion legislation succeeds not because of cash but because millions of Americans are opposed to abortion and they vote with a fierce and single-minded determination. Dairy-state representatives like Senator Pat Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, will vote to protect dairy interests whether or not they receive cash contributions from dairymen. Representative Bill Archer, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, supports a value-added tax to replace the federal income tax—but I have seen no evidence that his position is founded on anything other than intellectual conviction. His biggest single corporate contributor, Houston’s PanEnergy Corp., has given him a mere $12,000 over the past ten years.

Lewis and his colleagues also come perilously close to suggesting that almost every mishap in the country—every case of food poisoning, every faulty prescription, every workplace accident, every plane crash—is the result of some governmental lapse that can be traced to the hidden handiwork of wily plutocrats and their corrupt henchmen in our Congress. But it is not clear that even if the Congress and the government were Draconian in their enforcement of rules, they would be able to prevent the incidents that Lewis so frequently and effectively cites as anecdotal evidence: the child who died after eating the E. coli- tainted hamburger, or the airline passenger who died because her seat tore loose during a crash.

Unfortunately, Lewis leaves out one of the biggest and clearest examples of special-interest money that influences the government at the expense of national interest: the defense industry. When Congress voted this year to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it enacted an expansion that had been sought by US arms manufacturers eager to sell their products to new NATO members, who must upgrade their arsenals to achieve the NATO standard of “interoperability,” a curious word that we can find, interestingly enough, in the 1994 Republican Contract With America. The major lobbying for NATO expansion was funded by Lockheed Corp.

The Pentagon analyst Franklin C. Spinney has shown how defense contractors seduce Congress with “political engineering,” that is, by spreading subcontracts for expensive weapons systems through as many of the nation’s 435 congressional districts as possible.* Thus, when a vote came up earlier this year on whether to buy additional B-2 bombers, the decisive support came from members of the Congressional Black Caucus on the grounds that the B-2 provided jobs in their districts. Congress had already spent $45 billion on missile defense research with no practical result, yet it slipped $1 billion more into the emergency budget, as part of a Republican-demanded $9 billion boost in defense spending. This additional sum is being spent by a nation at peace, whose main potential enemies, North Korea and Iraq, are politically isolated and suffering from malnutrition. Defense contractors no longer deserve to be called merchants of death; rather, they are perpetually on the dole in a ceaseless cycle of dependency.

Lewis also fails to consider immigration law. This year, Congress and the administration have again listened to the major software developers and other employers of immigrant labor and agreed to increase immigration quotas for skilled professionals, supposedly the cream of the world’s scientists. In fact, most of the recruited immigrants do donkey work in their industries and undercut the wages of native-born and immigrant specialists already here.

Still, Lewis presents a broad and telling picture. He shows how the federal tax burden has shifted away from corporations toward individuals, and, among individuals, away from the well-to-do and toward those low- and middle-income working people who now pay increased Social Security taxes to cover up the deficits. This shift has occurred during both Democratic and Republican administrations, and with both Republican and Democratic control of the Congress.

The basic reason for the increased influence of money is banal. With the collapse of grass-roots political organizations—when was the last time your block captain knocked on your door?—politicians must seek votes through television advertising, which costs money. If you were running for the Senate in, say, North Carolina, it would cost around $8 million, which must come in contributions no larger than $1,000. If you called 1,000 friends who could write you a check for $1,000, you would be one eighth of the way there; only $7 million to go. Meanwhile, standing there with a grin are the lobbyists and campaign contributors who can take this burden off your back, and by the way, they have a little piece of legislation that really won’t cost the taxpayers a dime and is essential to the happiness and prosperity of the American people if not absolutely indispensable to the perpetuity of republican institutions on this continent.

Can anything be done about the growing power of special interests? There is at least a partial solution. Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican, and Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, a Democrat, championed campaign finance legislation that would have choked off some of the major sources of special-interest money. (Feingold, living by his principles, unilaterally renounced unlimited “soft money” from special interests in his reelection campaign this year, and only narrowly defeated a heavily funded challenge by Republican Representative Mark Neumann.) A parallel version of their bill, sponsored by Representative Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Representative Martin Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, even passed the House, over the prolonged opposition of Gingrich and his majority leader, Richard Armey of Texas. But campaign finance reform died in the Senate, chiefly at the hands of Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican heavily funded by the tobacco industry. McConnell filibustered the bill, arguing, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, that restricting campaign contributions is an infringement of freedom of speech. A majority of his fellow senators disagreed with him, but not the sixty needed to break his filibuster.

Still, not even campaign finance reform could eliminate the blight described in The Buying of the Congress. Less than one tenth of one percent of the population gives campaign contributions of $1,000 or more. In the end, we are talking about a system involving huge numbers of citizens, about one half of whom do not vote and who have interests and demands that representatives may or may not take into account. In the conflicts between workers and employers, corporations and small businessmen, the employed and the retired, producers and consumers, politicians will respond to those voices they hear most clearly, which means those who have gotten access to them. It is inevitable that in this struggle, the richest among us will have the greatest influence over political power.

  1. *

    See “Commentary on the Quadrennial Defense Review: What Went Wrong? How to Fix It,” in Strategic Review, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Fall 1997), p. 35. The same article can be seen on the Internet at www.comw.org/qdr/cspinney. htm.

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