Money can buy you love

Peter Eisner of the Center for Public Integrity talks about "The Buying of the President 2000."

Published January 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Though it rarely cracks the top 10 of voter concerns, campaign-finance reform underlies many of the major issues of this year's presidential race. Where the candidates stand on health-care reform, gun control and education policy seems closely related to what businesses, political action committees or unions are bankrolling their campaigns. Meanwhile, real funding reform is perpetually DOA in Washington, as few established pols want to bite the (many) hands that feed them.

But this election, many of the glass-house dwellers are throwing stones. John McCain has made reform the centerpiece of his underdog bid for the Republican nomination, and Bill Bradley joined the Arizona senator in his public laments about big money influence on Capitol Hill.

Al Gore, of the "no controlling legal authority" cash calls, says he's all for that reform stuff, too. Even the rest of the Republican contenders, who stand united against financing changes that would hurt their party, continually criticize the giant sucking sound of the Bush juggernaut inhaling GOP donor dollars.

The Center for Public Integrity has just released "The Buying of the President 2000." It claims no candidate is quite clean of taking special-interest dollars, or of giving special attention in return. Peter Eisner, the managing director of the center, spoke with Salon News about what the report uncovered.

In what way are the current candidates compromised by their contributors?

Each individual case is different. Say in the case of George W. Bush. [Before becoming governor] he made his money in the oil business, and that relationship with the oil business has been maintained. His top funder is Enron Corporation [an oil and natural gas company] and he has other high-level funders in the oil business. We're talking about a relationship [with the industry] that has borne fruit.

As governor of Texas, he's allowed oil companies, including Enron, Marathon and Exxon, to be grandfathered into a slide in implementation of pollution regulations. As a matter of fact, we found that executives from Marathon and Exxon actually co-authored the legislation. Only when it became clear that that was happening did the state finally impose standards for everyone as of 2003. So there's a definite benefit that took place there.

While Bradley talks about closing tax loopholes, in fact, when he was on the Senate Finance Committee, he was an architect of the largest tax giveaway to businesses in history. He helped author bills that were precisely pointing at tax breaks in the millions of dollars, including one for [campaign contributor] Bear Stearns.

We point out [Gore's] longtime relationship with Occidental Petroleum. His father was very close to Armand Hammer, the former head of Occidental Petroleum, and [Gore] has maintained that relationship. We mention specifically in the book the two strategic oil reserves held by the government for 80 or 90 years, the Teapot Dome reserve in Wyoming and the Elks Hill reserve in California. These were the basis of the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s, when the oil companies tried to bribe their way into winning those reserves. They were held by the government all that time, until Al Gore recommended to President Clinton that they be freed up ... 47,000 acres of the Elk Hill reserve was then sold to Occidental Petroleum.

Many of John McCain's large contributors are Baby Bells. U.S. West is his largest career patron. Another large patron is AT&T. Besides the stuff that's come out recently about his sending a letter to the FCC on behalf of Paxson Communications, we tracked his position on a proposed merger between AT&T and Media One to create a huge cable business. He basically blocked the FCC from ruling on the merger, tacitly threatening that the FCC's ability to rule on mergers might be taken away in the future. This really paved the way for the AT&T-Media One merger. Within weeks of that happening, all of a sudden AT&T executives and their spouses gave thousands of dollars to [McCain's] campaign.

How common is it for organizations that want to get around bad publicity and campaign-finance regulations to compel or strongly encourage employees or their spouses to make contributions?

It happens fairly often, often enough that there's a term for it. It's called "bundling." The coercion of campaign contributions in that matter is illegal. We've seen it with other candidates and it's very disturbing.

What about reports that John McCain tried to influence the FCC in favor of Paxson, which has supported his campaign?

He's certainly not the first committee chairman to apply pressure to a government agency for any reason, and -- the way Washington works -- it often happens because of a special interest. He's taking special heat for it because he's standing up saying that he's in favor of campaign-finance reform.

What are the motivations for donating to an obviously losing candidate?

Sometimes it's ideology. Take the Republican debates for example. One could argue that only two of the candidates have a possibility of winning the nomination. But sitting on the same stage with them, Alan Keyes is able to espouse political views that are very much in line with his top donor, the National Rifle Association, or his second top donor, the National Right to Life Political Action Committee. It's free publicity. Try buying an ad on network television for a minute, and you've spent more than the amount of a donation to the candidate. These organizations are getting their message across.

Can the challengers -- Bill Bradley and John McCain -- argue that they need to be more aggressive about fund-raising because they don't enjoy the support of their parties?

Isn't it true that everyone needs to raise as much money as possible or they can't compete in the election? In order to be a viable candidate, you have got to be principally engaged in raising money. George W. Bush, in the first four months of his campaign, raised something like $500,000 an hour. So for Bradley and McCain to be viable options they must do everything possible in this pay-to-play system to raise money. We're taking a step back to say, "Is this a system that best serves the American people?"

The American people will probably again stay away from the polls in droves this year because they don't feel like they're invested in the system. Money is flooding into the system to the tune of billions of dollars, and people need to understand that it is actually buying something.

In light of the American public's lack of faith in the political system, how likely is it that they will be moved to act against big money politics?

It's very distressing that there is this tremendous apathy in the public about the whole process and the only thing that we can say is that we remain optimists. We believe that there is a chance for redemption of politicians and that the public will at some point be galvanized by the terrible consequences to democracy that this tidal wave of money is causing.

In some ways, does publishing a book that implies that all the candidates are compromised contribute to an atmosphere of public cynicism?

I hope not. The answer is certainly not sweeping what's really happening under a rug and saying that the sound-bite television snippets and the handsome, smiling gazes of the candidates are enough. It's as though they're holding up a mask and the real action is going on behind them. We don't believe that ignorance is any solution. Many of the things in our book have never been reported before, and we're trying to help the news media and the public have a basis for understanding what is really going on in the election. We can't believe that the lack of information is better than having all the information that anyone can possibly get.

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

MORE FROM Alicia Montgomery

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Al Gore Democratic Party Enron George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.