The matchmakers

Washington's access-for-cash fundraisers like the "President's Dinner" show that corrupting special interests have replaced King George in our battle for independence.

Published July 2, 2001 3:31PM (EDT)

Were you at last week's $2,500-a-plate "black tie and boots" fundraiser for the Republican Party? If you're an ordinary citizen, I'm guessing you weren't. But among those dining on grilled tenderloin and sweet potato and corn soufflé with President Bush and Vice President Cheney was a gaggle of lobbyists calling themselves the "Washington Program." This group's co-chairmen include two lobbyists, Bruce Gates and Kim McKernan, who are taking the lead against the patients' bill of rights bill currently being fought on the Hill.

The "President's Dinner" raised a whopping $20 million for the GOP's neediest cases, breaking both last year's record $11.7 million tally and a few records for shamelessness. And just in case any of the eligible lobbyists and lawmakers who were circling each other at the affair neglected the customary exchange of phone numbers at the end of a long romantic evening, their gift bags included a congressional directory, graciously provided by Printing Industries of America -- making it that much easier to follow up with that all-important second date.

This massive orgy of influence peddling gave flesh and blood to a stinging rebuke delivered just three days earlier by the Mouse That Roared, Justice David Souter, in a Supreme Court ruling upholding limits on how much political parties can spend in smoke-filled coordination with federal candidates.

"Even under present law," Justice Souter wrote in the court's majority opinion, "substantial donations turn the parties into matchmakers whose special meetings and receptions give the donors the chance to get their points across to the candidates ... Parties function for the benefit of donors whose object is to place candidates under obligation, a fact that parties cannot escape."

The bottom line of the Supreme Court ruling -- that limits on political contributions are constitutional -- is a right cross to the jaw of anti-reformers like the Grand Old Party's Grand Old Pol, Mitch McConnell, whose favorite ploy is to portray his objections to restricting campaign spending as a noble defense of the First Amendment.

This is the second time that the increasingly admirable Justice Souter has delivered an opinion brimming with outrage at the consequences of the political corruption inherent in our current system. In a ruling last year upholding Missouri's limits on campaign contributions, he wrote: "Leave the perception of impropriety unanswered, and the cynical assumption that large donors call the tune could jeopardize the willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance."

"Justice Souter and the majority of the court," says Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, "seem to be refreshingly up-to-date on how much our system of private financing for campaigns has turned into legalized bribery."

Now the focus shifts to Congress, where the battle over campaign finance reform is heating up, with the Shays-Meehan bill scheduled to come to the floor of the House sometime next week.

Although in recent years the House has twice passed the Shays-Meehan ban on soft money -- in 1999, the vote was 252-177 -- members no longer have the luxury of voting their conscience, secure in the knowledge that the legislation will be killed in the Senate.

With the passage of McCain-Feingold, it's now time for House reformers to put up or shut up. Surprisingly, among those having second thoughts are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, afraid that a ban on soft money will hamper registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.

In a desperate attempt to play on these fears -- and drive a wedge through the bipartisan coalition backing Shays-Meehan -- the GOP has crafted a reform-lite bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, intended to provide political cover for politicians who want to vote against reform without being painted as defenders of the status quo.

Sadly, unless fully exposed, this masquerade may work. Late last week, Rep. Albert Wynn, head of the CBC's campaign finance task force, signed on as a cosponsor of Ney's bill. Just how many of the CBC's 37 other members end up turning their backs on Shays-Meehan could make the difference between victory and defeat.

Fighting to put a halt to CBC defections, Reps. John Conyers and John Lewis are sending a letter to their caucus colleagues with an unambiguous plea: "Throughout its history, the Congressional Black Caucus has always stood for democratic reform, participation and the inclusion of all voices. This year we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with others to both open up our election system and pass the first major campaign finance reform in over 25 years."

Conyers told me: "While it's true that restricting soft money will limit our voter outreach activities, we've got much bigger fish to fry. The larger question is how do we reduce the billions of dollars that come in to affect the political process."

While Conyers and Lewis are appealing to their colleagues' better angels, Sen. John McCain has fired off pointed missives to over two dozen House Republicans he campaigned for last year, urging them not to go back on their promises to fight for reform.

In the meantime, Texas Republican Reps. Dick Armey and Tom DeLay are waging an all-out effort to kill the bill with a series of arm-twisting -- I mean, "listening" -- sessions. And waiting in the wings is a bevy of poison-pill amendments. "Paycheck protection," anyone?

President Bush has made it clear that he doesn't intend to veto a campaign finance reform bill if it passes, which makes the House vote the anti-reformers' last stand. So it looks like the fireworks in Washington will last beyond this week's Fourth of July celebrations.

Two hundred and twenty-five years after our nation's founding, we're still waging a battle for independence -- only now, it's not King George's rule we're fighting but the corrupting influence of special-interest money. So let's salute some present-day patriots: Sens. McCain and Feingold, Reps. Shays, Meehan, Conyers and Lewis, and Justice Souter, heroes one and all.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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