The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington

BACK in the days when the railroads were stretching steel ribbons across the open continent with generous help from the federal government, Jay Gould offered one member of Congress $1000 cash down and $5000 when an important bill was passed, with $10,000 worth of bonds thrown in. In 1872 the Crédit Mobilier investigation revealed a letter from the head of a railroad construction firm saying he had sold or assigned company stock “where it will produce the most good for us” among members of Congress. That congressional investigation besmirched numerous political reputations, including that of Vice President Schuyler Colfax.

The 1935-36 investigation of lobbying against the Public Utility Holding Company Act disclosed that 14,000 telegrams sent to members of Congress had been signed with names taken from phone books— all but three of the telegrams paid for by utility companies with a financial interest in defeat of the measure.

Not since that investigation has there been such an uproar at the Capitol as the one caused by the mild little man from Custer, South Dakota, Republican Senator Francis Case, when he disclosed the $2500 campaign contribution from a lobbyist interested in the natural gas bill. “Case is as popular as a skunk” was the verdict of a fellow senator after the disclosure.

The simple fact was that the integrity of the Senate had been challenged and a good many senators were sure that that integrity would not stand the hot light of a major investigation of lobbying by gas and oil interests. Senators who favored the gas bill publicly pounced on Case and privately used every stratagem they could think of to make him the culprit and to keep the lid on any investigation. The stench was too great, however, and in the end they had to give way to a general investigation. And they lost the bill, to boot, by an inescapable Eisenhower veto — a veto not on the merit of the measure but solely on the grounds of the “lobbying” for it.

Beyond the issue of lobbying for the gas bill itself lies the special status of the oil industry because of its unique “depletion allowance” under the tax laws. This tax benefit is the holy of holies. Every effort to repeal or modify it in recent years has gotten nowhere. Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota said during the gas debate that the progas-bill pressure outside the Senate to influence senators “has surely laid its whip across the backs” of those opposed. One of Humphrey’s staff assistants went further: the pressure, he said, was nothing compared with what it was when Humphrey tried in 1949 to repeal the depletion allowance, for “then the oil industry really lowered the boom.”

The integrity of government

The central issue of the uproar, however, is much broader than the efforts of business, or of one segment of one industry, to win its point in Congress. It goes beyond the efforts of labor, or agriculture, or veterans, or any other organized group to pressure Congress into voting something it wants. It goes to the nature of our system of representative government itself.

In 1954 Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking for the majority of the Supreme Court in upholding the 1946 lobbying registration law, put the issue in these terms: “Present-day legislative complexities are such that individual members of Congress cannot be expected to explore the myriad pressures to which they are regularly subjected. Yet full realization of the American ideal of government by elected representatives depends to no small extent on their ability to properly evaluate such pressures. Otherwise the voice of the people may all too easily be drowned out by the voice of special interest groups seeking favored treatment while masquerading as proponents of the public weal.”

Every practical politician, whether he operates on a national, state, or local level, knows that questionable money is often readily accepted for campaign purposes. Senators will tell you privately they prefer not to know where all the money comes from; that they try to insulate themselves from tainted money by one or more campaign committees which collect funds — in cash as far as possible, to leave no incriminating checks for later exposure.

As campaign costs have mounted, especially since the advent of television, it has become inescapable for most candidates to accept big money from people they would prefer not to have as contributors. The smart contributor who has an axe to grind will be discreet and not press for a return on his investment except on a crucial issue. Even then he will act through an intermediary, usually the campaign manager or campaign committee chairman, who will casually tell the member of Congress that after all Bill or Jack, you know, came through with that important contribution last time and can be counted on again if . . .

This is a rotten system, corruptive of the democratic process, as Warren’s opinion makes perfectly evident. The uproar over the $2500 contribution to Senator Case will avail nothing if it does not bring about a real corrective, whatever the headlines involved in tracking down other similar gifts.

The cost of campaigning

What can be done? There are two lines of approach and both are necessary, though either without the other would be a stop forward.

1. Full accountability for campaign funds. This is the aim of Senator Thomas Hennings’s efforts to require all persons who collect money for congressional campaigns to account for both gift and giver and to require all committees to be authorized by the candidate himself. Aside from the fact that many politicians feel that such a spotlight on contributions would dry up a lot of currently underthe-table gifts, the Southerners oppose the idea of extending such a law to primaries. The Southern opposition is publicly based on states’ rights, but the fact is that it is compounded of fear both of exposure of leading contributors and of creating a wedge in establishing the two-party system in the one-party South.

2. A broader base of contributors. A Gallup poll has shown that some 15 million American families would be willing to contribute $5 each in a presidential campaign — nearly 40 per cent of the Republican families and some 30 per cent of Democratic, if the poll is correct. Here lies a campaign kitty of perhaps $75 million, a sizable — and untainted — treasury even in the day of multi-million-dollar nation-wide campaigns for President.

Some months ago Philip L. Graham, publisher of the Washington Post and Times Herald and a leader in the Advertising Council, publicly proposed that that group, which has ably aided the Community Chest and other philanthropic projects, take on the campaign contribution issue. The idea was to set up a bipartisan committee headed by the two living ex-Presidents to encourage millions of Americans to send $5 to the party of their choice. Harry Truman agreed, Herbert Hoover declined. However, the idea has great merit, and it may yet be revived in time for the 1956 election.

Campaign contributions tax-deductible?

A related proposal would allow campaign contributors to deduct their gifts from their federal income tax, just as they do for charitable gifts. On this front, Minnesota last year adopted a dual state tax deduction system, for both contributor and candidate, which could serve as a model for the new federal law.

Contributors fall into four categories: a national committeeman or committeewoman or state chairman can deduct up to $1000 for political contributions to a party, a candidate, or a “political cause. ” Congressional district committeemen are allowed up to $850 and county chairmen up to $100. All other persons may deduct up to $100. Candidates are allowed campaign expense deductions on a graduated scale: up to $5000 for governor or United States senator, $3500 for other state offices or United States House of Representatives, $500 for state senator, $500 for state representative, $500 for presidential elector at large, $100 for presidential elector from a congressional district, and, finally up to one fourth of annual salary for a candidate for any other public office — a category covering mayors, councilmen, and so on. The law will get its first real test this year.

The nature of American democracy with its lack of party discipline and its parties composed of often-rival interests has made lobbying inevitable. The problem is to chart its ethical limits and to keep it within those limits. The legislator who accepts “oil money” or “labor money” or any other large contributions cannot, for the most part, be blamed. It costs more and more to run for office, and the candidate’s problem is to broaden the base of his contributors so that he will not be dependent on big givers with a vested interest in giving, and then to expose to public view both the giver and the receiver of big contributions. It may be trite but it remains true that inner corruption is democracy’s greatest enemy.

Mood of the Capital

Now that the President has announced he is a candidate for a second term, two points dominate this election campaign: 1. Is there any possibility of replacing Vice President Nixon as second man on the GOP ticket? 2. What is the extent of the disaffection among the 33 million Americans who voted for Eisenhower four years ago?

The President’s position on Nixon, in the view of Washington politicians, boils down to this: he prefers Nixon as his running mate again because Nixon is, as he put it, “a loyal and dedicated associate” for whom he has “unbounded admiration and respect.” However, he will not name Nixon or anyone else as his running mate until after his own renomination at the convention in San Francisco in August. He will at that time, however, insist on Nixon or someone else “acceptable” to him. Those who want to ditch Nixon must convince President Eisenhower that he should be ditched, and then provide an acceptable substitute.

In the judgment of Washington this is an almost insuperable task, short of some major Nixon blooper between now and August. Even the Vice President’s political use of the Supreme Court decision against school segregation — his remark about a “great Republican Chief Justice" — drew only a mild rebuke from the President on the day of his announcement.

The President will be renominated without question, assuming that there is no change in his health. He has left an out as to Nixon, but it will be meaningless unless Nixon’s opponents can change the President’s mind.

What are the chances of the President’s re-election? What is the extent of the disaffection since 1952? Here there are many imponderables, the chief of which are: How mad are the farmers at the GOP, and will they be assuaged before election day? How many people are angry at what may be lumped together as Republican “giveaway” policies? How many who used to vote Democratic will return now that there has been an end to twenty years of Democratic rule?

How many independent voters who felt it was “time for a change” four years ago believe it is time for another? How many Southern Democrats who deserted the party will return to the fold this time? And finally, how many voters who still like Ike will not be able to stomach Nixon because of the increased possibility that the President would not live out a second term?

Democrats are hopeful of gaining votes in each of these categories, despite the immensely popular President. But cast against any such gains is the prospect of major Republican inroads into the Negro vote, which has been overwhelmingly Democratic for two decades including the 1952 election. Nixon already has demonstrated that the Negro vote in the North will be a major GOP target, and the Democrats are painfully aware of it. The GOP can cross off the South if it can split the Negro vote in the big Northern industrial cities and states, and that is exactly what it is out to do.

This new bidding for the Negro vote — of which the Negro leaders are well aware and from which many of them hope to gain for their race — casts an ugly shadow over the coming campaign in this painful period when one section of the nation struggles to readjust itself to the inevitable.

The Eisenhower-Nixon margin over the Stevenson-Sparkman ticket four years ago was a massive 6.6 million votes. Washington’s view is that the Democrats, despite their consistent gains in the three intervening elections at local, state, and national levels, are the underdogs.