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A Few Losers Might Clean Up Ethics Mess

<i> Daniel K. Whitehurst is a businessman and the former mayor of Fresno</i>

When Tony Coelho announced his plans to resign from the House of Representatives, I spent a few days considering whether to run in the special election to fill his post.

I decided not to, mainly because I figured I couldn’t win. (It’s not that I’m all that unpopular. It’s just that in a big part of the district I’m not known well enough to be unpopular.) But there was another reason, one that continues to trouble me: To get elected to Congress today, you have to play the game that created this whole “ethics” mess.

There’s a lot wrong with American politics right now. Here is the short list:

--The absolute dominance of money in the political world.

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--The pervasiveness of career politicians, who are obsessed with survival and lack the wisdom and independence that come from having experience and a source of livelihood outside the world of politics.

--The superficiality of news coverage and the inability of the media to let an issue take time to develop. The immediacy of television turns every problem, from pit bulls to freeway shootings, into a crisis requiring an instant solution.

--The emergence of special interest groups and one-issue constituencies.

--The end-justifies-the-means mentality of many political consultants, leading to cheap-shot attacks and misleading advertising in campaigns.

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--The virtual elimination of privacy for elected officials.

The most troublesome of these is the first one. Tony Coelho probably did as much as any one person to marry up big money with the Democratic Party; in the old days, Fat Cats gave primarily to the Republicans. But Coelho made the rather compelling argument that if you really want bang for your political bucks, it’s not very wise to ignore the party that controls Congress.

This new arrangement did several things: It upped the ante in congressional campaigns. Total spending on House and Senate races went from $72 million in 1974 to $471.4 million in 1986. Political action committee contributions rose during the same period, $8.5 million to $132.2 million.

There were other results of the link between money and politics. Job security of incumbent Democrats was enhanced; in the meantime, the idealism of the Democratic Party was drained as the connection between contributions and public policy tightened. Then congressional Democrats began to distance themselves from everyday people and started running around with a wealthier crowd. All of a sudden that $89,500 salary didn’t seem like so much--and taking honoraria from special interests to augment the family income seemed more justifiable.

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I’ve never felt comfortable with this new style of politics. So when Tony Coelho resigned, I thought this might be an ideal opportunity for me, another Democrat, to offer a new approach--especially with all the national attention focused on the issue of ethics.

But the problem is that if you want to change Congress, you first have to get elected. And there’s the rub: To get elected, you have to raise a ton of money and then do a mass-merchandising-type campaign. (In the special primary election to replace Coelho, if you were a candidate, you would need to hustle about $200,000 in six weeks, which would be used on TV spots that say you’re not like those money-grubbers in Washington.)

You enter the system hoping to change it--and then realize that the price of entry was the compromise of the very ideals that motivated your candidacy in the first place.

If you try to run a different kind of campaign (no contributions over $100 or no TV ads, for instance), you lose--and probably look silly in the process. But that is what it may take to break down the money-game style of politics. It may take people who are willing to lose a few for the cause--and suffer the embarrassment of being branded a “loser” or (and this is even worse in the political world) a “nonplayer.” After a few years out in the vineyard, their message might get through to the voters.

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In order to make ethics fever go away, the House of Representatives will probably adopt new rules regarding honoraria and conflicts of interest. But the real problem gets back to the voters themselves. Will they refuse to be taken in by slick, superficial, misleading campaigns? And will they rebel against the money-driven system that protects incumbents and rewards candidates who play ball with special interests?

Until they do, they should know that new members of Congress will have made the same compromises and gone through the same rite of initiation as the current members.


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