The Soiled, Sorry Face of Politics as Usual : Health care fund-raiser shows need for campaign reform

Campaign fund-raising is a melancholy business at best and a dirty one at worst. Grubbing for dollars to stuff the campaign war chest for the next run for office can occupy as much of elected public officials' time as governing. In Washington, freshman members of Congress know from their first day in office that if they do not immediately get cracking on the rubber-chicken fund-raising circuit, they are unlikely to be able to pay the bills for the next campaign. In fact, for all but the independently wealthy, tin-cupping for dollars is a constant, sometimes neurotic and often demeaning preoccupation having little to do with the formulation of sound public policy.

The unseemly extravaganza planned by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for later this week is a particularly egregious example of tin-cupping, though not at all unusual except for its grand scale and high profile. As reported Saturday by Robert A. Rosenblatt of The Times' Washington bureau, invitations signed by Sens. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.), summon health industry lobbyists and business executives to an "issues forum" on health care reform.

The session, costing no less than $5,000 to attend, will trot out various health-care experts and Administration policy pooh-bahs, including Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. Whether that proffered company is worth $5,000 is an economic decision only the lobbying and business organizations can make. But if the invitation from Rockefeller and Graham falls short of outright extortion--and, to be sure, there is nothing illegal about it--it is an unseemly exercise of muscle. Organizations and individuals whose economic interests are tied to health reform might well regard the invitation as a kind of be-there-or-beware command appearance.

It's particularly unfortunate that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee should seek to leverage health-reform apprehensions into dollars. The Clinton Administration has rightly and perhaps even fearlessly taken up this extraordinarily complicated and important issue. The First Lady herself has put in countless hours on it. Health reform is occupying the talents of some of the Administration's best and brightest. Too bad that the effort is now clouded by a grubby fund-raising tie-in.

But this is the way of the American political world, Republican as well as Democratic--after all, it was the GOP that netted an all-time record $9 million at a "President's Dinner" in April, 1992. (The biggest givers got to sit with President Bush.) And thus it will stay unless and until campaign-finance reform, including public financing of elections, is made law.

That almost surely won't happen in the middle of this fearsome recession. It's too hard to persuade taxpayers to bankroll politicians' election campaigns when there isn't enough money for urgent needs such as public education, child services and homeless housing.

But over the long run, America must commit itself to campaign reform. It must part company with a system that forces politicians of both parties to make appearances at corporate retreats, seminars and round tables and bark like trained seals to stuff the campaign stocking. Then Americans can demand without exception that office-holders, freed from the bonds of special-interest money, focus on nothing less and nothing more than the general good.

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