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Notes & Comment
A Republic -- If We Can Keep It
The present corrupt system of financing elections, a U.S. senator argues, poses a serious threat to our democracy. The sad lesson of the recent campaign-finance scandals is not only that the laws are vaporous but also that politicians won't change their ways without public pressure

by Joseph Lieberman

Prostitution of government OF the many remarks uttered during the U.S. Senate investigation of the 1996 national elections -- elections that saw the laws on campaign spending and contributions stretched to the point of absurdity -- one of the most telling came in a brief comment by the former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes. Challenged about his handling of a questionable transaction during the final week of the 1996 campaign, Ickes defended his conduct in part by pointing to the chaotic atmosphere all around him: "We were like Mad Hatters," he said. This allusion to the fundraising madness of the 1996 election cycle seems apt -- too many good people were running around like Mad Hatters doing all kinds of bad things. There was a surreal quality to the whole scandal, with its bizarre cast of characters, the tortuous logic that many participants employed to rationalize their actions, and the sense as the investigation went on that the polity has fallen down a long, dark hole into a place that is far from the vision and values of those who founded our democracy.
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From the archives:

  • "Political Assessments in the Coming Campaign," by Theodore Roosevelt (July, 1892)
    "Where a bad custom has been in existence for any length of time, most people grow to regard it as part of the order of nature. This is well illustrated in the attitude of the average politician towards civil service reform. He finds some difficulty in understanding the proposition that minor offices should be taken out of politics, and is quite unable to surrender the idea that a large part of the funds for every campaign should be paid by the office-holders."


  • "The Business of Politics," by Gregg Easterbrook (October, 1986)
    "Just as Political Action Committees [PACs] have been able to render congressmen timorous by implicitly threatening to back an opponent, congressmen have learned to shake down the PACs with a reciprocal insinuation that they'd better give or lose ground to a competing PAC that did."

  • "Running Scared," by Anthony King (January, 1997)
    "Painfully often the legislation our politicians pass is designed less to solve problems than to protect the politicians from defeat in our neverending election campaigns. They are, in short, too frightened of us to govern."

  • "What's Wrong With Congress?", by Gregg Easterbrook (December, 1984)
    "Money rarely buys elections.... Money can, however, buy individual congressmen's votes on a bill, or distort congressmen's thinking on an issue -- normally all an interest group needs to achieve its ends."



    Related links:

  • The Washington Post's Campaign Finance Reform Page
    Links to articles, opinion pieces, discussion forums, and other Web sites focusing on campaign-finance reform.


  • NPR: Money and Politics Reporting
    A collection of broadcasts focusing on campaign finance.



  • In that strange place the law appears to be written in invisible ink. It is somehow possible for wealthy donors to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns, even though the law is clearly intended to limit contributions to a tiny fraction of such sums. It is possible for labor unions and corporations to donate millions to political parties at the candidates' request, despite a decades-old prohibition on the involvement of unions and corporations in national elections. It is possible for tax-exempt groups to run millions of dollars' worth of television ads that clearly endorse or attack particular candidates, even though these groups are barred by law from engaging in such partisan activity. And it is possible for presidential nominees to continue putting the touch on contributors, even though they have pledged under the law not to raise any more money for their campaigns after receiving enormous lump sums ($62 million apiece for Bob Dole and Bill Clinton in 1996) in public funds.

    The fundraising scandal of 1996 was a very real tragedy, with very real consequences for our democracy. People at the highest levels in both political parties did more than just strain credulity: they betrayed the public trust. In their breathless, unbounded rush to raise even more money for even more television advertising, they effectively hung a giant FOR SALE sign on our government and the whole of our political process.

    They also gave Americans, already beset by cynicism, good reason to doubt whether citizens have a true and equal voice in their own government. The dangers here must not be dismissed: corruption is a great killer of experiments in self-government. In 1787, as he left Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the country now had. He replied, "A republic, if you can keep it. "Franklin was worried about a tendency toward monarchy. The threat today, imminent and real, is a state of affairs in which money itself is King.

    One of the central problems exposed by the campaign-finance revelations has to do with the distinction we make between illegal conduct and improper conduct in public life, and the standards we use to judge such conduct. To this day some prominent elected officials contend that most of the scandals of 1996 involved violations of laws already on the books, and that therefore the appropriate response is simply tougher punishment and tougher enforcement. The reality is otherwise. Most of the sleazy behavior that characterized those elections was legal. The blatant skirting of limits on individual contributions; the subversion of restrictions on presidential candidates who receive public funds; the conversion of supposedly nonpartisan, tax-exempt groups into political agents; the fact that unions and corporations funneled millions of dollars into the two parties despite the law's absolute ban on their involvement in national campaigns -- all these acts compromised the integrity of our elections and our government, and all plainly violate the spirit of our laws. Yet all of them also appear to be legal.

    In effect, then, what the law permitted in 1996 was as outrageous as any crime that was committed. This point is enormously significant, not just in terms of gauging the import of this scandal but also for determining the steps we should take to repair our broken campaign-finance system. It may be that enforcement of various kinds will curb some of the illegal activities that occurred during the 1996 elections. Yet we can make no similar statement about the wide range of corrosive activities that continue to be legal. In fact, just the opposite is true -- it is certain that these behaviors will persist unless we make them illegal.

    *  *  *

    It is not only the political system that has been compromised and corrupted; so have the values and standards of those who operate within it. In politics as in many segments of our society today, from professional-sports leagues that wink at the shocking behavior of big stars to TV talk-show producers who achieve new lows in degradation and exploitation every day, the bottom line -- raising money -- has too often become the dominant line. Basic differences between right and wrong have become blurred. The moral standard for campaigns today is not what is unassailably proper but what is technically legal.

    Plugging the most egregious loopholes to make the clearly improper clearly illegal will deter some future wrongdoing, which is sufficient reason to plug them. But these changes won't be enough. The law serves as an expression of our values. It can stake out ethical boundaries, point us in the right direction, and punish actions that are wrong -- but it cannot compel moral behavior. We cannot fully write into law what citizens have a right to expect from their representatives -- that those who wish to write the rules for the nation will themselves respect the rules, rather than searching high and low for ways to evade legal requirements and eviscerate their intent; that those who have sworn to abide by the Constitution will honor the trust and responsibilities the Constitution places in their hands, rather than catering to the special interests depositing soft money in their pockets. For our democracy to function, we must rely on a common core of values beyond what the law requires, a system of moral checks and balances comparable to the ones built into the Constitution. But over the past several years the pressure to raise huge amounts of money has eroded those values among politicians -- has "defined deviancy down" -- and left them prey to their baser instincts.

    The 1996 elections provided ample evidence of the threat that political money-scrounging poses to the legitimacy of our government. Although it has yet to be proved that any U.S. policy, foreign or domestic, was altered by any of the hustlers and opportunists who bought access to some of our top leaders, we cannot deny that the potential existed for this kind of purchase. Nor can we ignore the dangers inherent in the simple appearance of influence peddling. Consider some of the comments volunteered by the unsavory characters who sought to buy their way into our political system. Johnny Chung: "I see the White House is like a subway -- you have to put in coins to open the gates." Roger Tamraz, explaining how money bought him political access that had been denied him through other channels: "If they kicked me from the door, I will come through the window."

    Hearing these comments, the average American would have every reason to suspect the worst about the government and those who are running it, and to question just whose interests are being served. This may be the gravest consequence of the moral breakdown that our politics has suffered. Take away the Johnny Chungs and the Roger Tamrazes and the other shakedown artists, and we are still left with a system that bends over backward to indulge big donors and their special interests, a system that suggests to the public that power will be exercised chiefly in behalf of those who pay top dollar.

    *  *  *

    The breakdown in our political values is akin to a broader problem in our society -- the sense that popular culture has disoriented our moral compass. In the intense competition for higher television ratings or more record sales, many good people working at great and honorable companies have debased themselves by conveying images of extreme violence, sexual promiscuity, and vulgarity into our children's minds. By extension they have debased us all. And they have defended their behavior by waving the First Amendment as if it were some kind of constitutional hall pass, whereby the right to speak freely justifies any and all behavior exercised under that right, no matter who is hurt.

    What has happened within our culture is strikingly similar to what has happened within our polity. Both arenas are plagued by enormous competitive pressures, the powerful temptation of big money, and a reflexive reliance on the right of free speech to shield the unseemly and the corrosive. In Hollywood the thinking goes, If I can say it or portray it and people will pay, then I must indeed say it and portray it, because then I will succeed. In Washington the analogue is, If the law does not clearly prohibit me from doing it, then I must do it or I will lose.

    Our experience in the so-called culture wars tells us that it is unrealistic to expect politicians to change their behavior and elevate their standards voluntarily. It is imperative to change the way our political process works -- to suppress the temptation to stray from core values. And the only way to accomplish this is to reduce the unrelenting pressure to raise vast sums of money. The most promising step would be to close the soft-money loophole through which corporate and labor-union money floods, making a mockery of the rules that bar those very entities from contributing to campaigns. A further step would be to prohibit presidential candidates who accept public money from raising any other money. Other steps might be to eliminate fake "issue ads" broadcast by political parties and independent groups and to encourage voluntary limits on campaign spending.

    The mistrust and alienation that many Americans feel toward their government and their elected leaders are reflected over and over again in polls. A Gallup poll after the 1996 elections found that just 32 percent of the public trusts in government to "do what is right" most of the time. A survey done by Peter Hart and Robert Teeter for the Council for Excellence in Government found that when asked whether elected officials have honesty and integrity, nearly three quarters of the respondents said no.

    One powerful indicator of the public's lack of confidence is its reaction to campaign-finance reform. When asked whether they believed that major changes in the laws could reduce the corrupting influence of big money in politics, nearly 60 percent of the respondents said that special interests will always find a way to maintain their power in Washington, no matter what laws we pass.

    Such hopelessness is undoubtedly why the public has not been demanding campaign-finance reform. The first task for reformers in both parties is to raise the level of trust to the point where people believe that reform can make a difference, so that they will demand it from their representatives. Without that demand reform will not happen. The responsibility falls on us all, in and out of public life. We no longer have the luxury of waiting idly for others to take the lead.


    Joseph Lieberman, a two-term Democratic senator from Connecticut, serves on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

    Illustration by
    Alison Seiffer

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; A Republic -- If We Can Keep It; Volume 282, No. 1; pages 14 - 17.

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