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GIVING ‘TIL IT HURTS : When It Comes to Campaign Financing, You Simply Can’t Have It Both Ways

I’m a sucker for politics. Those words are chosen carefully because it’s well known that politics, like a slot machine in a Vegas gas station, is a sucker game. Nonetheless, while others study box scores or memorize the grosses of films made by people they hate, I scan the political equivalent, the campaign-contribution reports that the law now requires to be fitfully and tardily published.

You see in the fine print of these reports where all the creativity missing from TV and the movies is going: into thinking up the names for the noble-sounding ad-hoc committees behind which so many contributors hide. How could the mind of man come up with so many variations of “Committee for a Good Future”? Maybe our brains are just too big for their own good.

A lot of the contributions listed on these reports are not surprising. We know where Jane Fonda and Charlton Heston send their checks. What interests me are the contributors who can’t make up their minds--the trade associations and real-estate developers and financial institutions that feel compelled to give money to both sides.

What’s their problem? Their highly paid teams of lobbyists, the only people who actually pay attention to Congress and state legislatures, just don’t know enough about the system to make an informed choice? Maybe giving money to both sides is a harmless enough gambler’s strategem--the sly habit of a conservative horse player, the savvy move of the Laker fan who bets his heart in the finals, then does some hedging against the old ticker. After all, you don’t need to fix a game or a race if you’re betting on both sides.

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Now it’s become clear that, in the political game, such indecision or harmless caution has cost all of us double-hulled tankerloads of money. And for good measure, it has totally screwed up the system. Consider the two biggest financial fiascoes in the history of bipedal mammals: the savings-and-loan grand larceny and the worldwide BCCI sleazathon.

Ordinarily, scandals like these--people’s savings looted to finance lavish lifestyles for the proprietors, drug- and arms-smuggling money being laundered for both Ollie North and his sworn enemy Abu Nidal--would be a valuable gift to the political party less responsible for the outrages. But Democrats as well as Republicans slopped at the trough of the savings-and-loan industry. That’s what those campaign-contribution reports were saying. And BCCI, meanwhile, was bankrolling virtually every creature on the political landscape still capable of drawing breath. Now Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, one of the few Democrats to try to get some mileage out of the global bank job, turns out to have been the recipient of large cash transfusions from a Florida bank secretly owned by--wah-wah trumpets here--BCCI.

These contributions to both sides have become a kind of curare for the political nervous system. Each party, desperate for money to create more attack ads, eagerly laps up the campaign funds that late California legislative boss Jesse Unruh called the “mother’s milk of politics.” When the junk bonds hit the fan, both parties stand paralyzed, saying in unison, “Nobody here but us chickens!”

So a cool trillion has gone down the toilet, thanks to this practice of bipartisan largesse, and more may be disappearing. The insurance companies have also been paying off both sides. Reforming campaign financing has always been like rooting for the Chicago Cubs--a sweet but doomed obsession. Do we really expect our politicians to wean themselves from the front teat on the cash cow? And--switch metaphors with me now--do we make going cold turkey easier for them by supplying the methadone for their addiction, taxpayer funds for campaigns?

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One gimmick might appeal to legislators who want to appear to be doing something: Require campaign contributors to pick a side. Any side. Pick one. Politicians will always be in somebody’s pocket. It will always be to the advantage of the unpocketed to point out that condition. If trial lawyers and unions give only to the Democrats, Republicans can suggest that their opponents are beholden to the forces that are strangling our competitive economy. The Democrats, deprived of dollars from the two banks still in business next year, could peg the GOP as the party of Big Money. It may seem pointless, but that’s the way the game is supposed to be played.

The only way to evade the Pick-a-Side Law would be to set up a different front group for each party. “Citizens for a Good Future” would give to one side; “People for a Good Future” would give to the other. It defies belief that political interest groups could stoop that low.


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