by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
July 21-22, 2001
LET'S GET BIG MONEY OUT OF POLITICS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- No one does absurdity quite like Congress. What other conclusion can one come to after watching them argue over the "Patients Bill of Rights" and campaign finance reform.
There are more than 43 million Americans without health insurance.Those who have health insurance are paying higher and higher premiums forless and less coverage. And, judging from Vice President Dick Cheney'slatest heart procedure, we have a two-tiered health care system where those with the means can get the finest in health care while millions rely uponemergency rooms as their primary caregivers.
In other words, the system is screwed up.
And what has Congress and President Bush been fighting about? The right to sue your HMO. Of course, why the debate has been reduced to thishas a lot to do with the other item that conservatives have croaked onceagain -- campaign finance reform.
Why is the U.S. the only industrialized country without a government-run universal health care system? Part of the reason has to dowith the enormous amounts of money that the HMOs, drug manufacturers andothers throw at our elected officials to make sure medicine remains afor-profit commodity instead of a non-profit entitlement.
If you want to know why little is ever done in the public interest, just remember the advice of Watergate whistleblower "Deep Throat" and"follow the money."
Why are the bulk of this nation's radio and tv stations, newspapers, magazines, book publishers, movie studios and music companies in the hands of 10 companies? Why are we spending nearly $300 billion a year on defense in the absence of any legitimate threat? Why does President Bush's energy strategy involve so much oil drilling and so little energy conservation? Why are Big Tobacco and the gun lobby suddenly feeling their oats? Why is Congress trying to make it harder to file for bankruptcy?
The answers to these questions lie in the lists of campaign contributions. According to Common Cause, $463.1 million in soft money -- the unregulated campaign donations given to the political parties -- was raised between Jan. 1, 1999 and Dec. 31, 2000. That's nearly double the amount that was raised in the 1996 campaign cycle ($235.8 million) and nearly five times as much as the 1992 campaign cycle ($84.4 million).
Common Cause breaks down the figures on it's Website(http://www.commoncause.org) and they certainly are an eye opener.
Who were the top 10 givers to the Republicans? They were AT&T ($2.3million), Phillip Morris ($2 million), Bristol-Meyers Squibb ($1.5million), the National Rifle Association and Enron Corp. ($1.4 million each), Pfizer and Freddie Mac ($1.3 million each), Microsoft ($1.2 million) and AOL Time Warner and Amway ($1.1 million each).
Labor unions -- which gave 99 percent of their money to Democrats -- made up most of that party's top 10, led by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($6.5 million), the Service Employees International Union ($5 million), the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners ($2.9 million), the Communications Workers of America ($2.4 million), the United Food and Commercial Workers ($2.1 million), S. Daniel Abraham, chairman of Slim Fast Foods, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Peter L. Buttenweiser, president of P.L.Buttenweiser and Associates ($1.8 million each), the American Federation of Teachers ($1.7 million) and Haim Saban, chairman of Saban Entertainment($1.5 million).
It gets even more clear who benefits from the big money when you look at the top 10 industries that have shoveled money into the system. Securities and investments (think the folks who want to see Social Security privatized and poor debtors pay back every last dime they owe) led the way with $45.2 million. The labor unions gave $32.8 million, but remember that business interests and professionals contributed $367.6 million, or 11 times more, than the unions did. That explains why its easier to spin straw into gold than to get pro-worker legislation through Congress.
Rounding out the industry top 10 are telecommunications ($26.8million), real estate ($26 million), computers and electronics ($25.5million), lawyers and lobbyists ($22.5 million), entertainment and media($19.4 million), pharmaceuticals and medical supplies ($17.4 million), insurance ($15.7 million) and oil and gas ($15.4 million).
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the Bush administration's priorities comes from the list of industries that gave almost of their money to Republicans -- metals and mining ($4.7 million, or 90 percent),tobacco ($4.7 million, or 88 percent) and the automotive ind= ustry ($3.9 million, or 88 percent).
Besides labor unions, industries that gave almost all of their money to Democrats included lawyers and lobbyists ($18.6 million, or 88 percent) and= entertainment and media ($13.3 million, or 72 percent).
The industries that hedged their bets and gave in almost equal amounts to each party were gambling ($4.2 million for each party), real estate ($13.2 million for Democrats, $12.7 million for the GOP), telecommunications ($13.8 million for the GOP, $12.9 million for Democrats), computers ($12.7 million for Democrats, $11.8 million for the GOP) and aerospace and defense ($4.4 million for the GOP, $3.7 million for Democrats).
I laugh when the arguments of conservatives that limits on political donations ultimately limits free speech. Barely 2 percent of the population directly donates any money to political candidates, and as you can see from the numbers from Common Cause, most of the soft money comes from corporate interests.
The rich and the well-connected are the folks who give the money and control the political debate. Sure, anybody can run for Congress -- but you better be able to come up with a couple of million dollars for a House seat and at least $10 million for a Senate seat.
Want to run president in 2004? You can, if you can come up with $30 million by the end of 2003. Unless you are independently wealthy, you have to shake down an awful lot of rich people, political action committees and spe= cial interest groups to come up with that kind of dough.
That, not campaign spending limits, is the real danger to freespeech and democracy. Yes, there are a few folks here and there in politics that aren't whores. But the reality is that if you want to be in politics, you have to either be rich, have lots of friends who are rich and/or be willing to sell your soul to the corporate interests to get the money you need to campaign and stay in office.
For about the cost of one B-2 bomber -- around a $1 billion -- we could have publicly funded Congressional elections. Without the burden of having to raise enormous sums of money, we could see a more diverse group of people running for office and we might stand a chance of seeing a government that acts in the public's interest instead of the interest of the folks who pour hundreds of millions of dollars into candidates and political parties to get what they want.
Without real reform and public funding of political campaigns, you can pretty much forget ever seeing things like universal health care, more money for education and less for the military, a cleaner environment or an energy policy that's not totally dependent on fossil fuels and nuclear power. In other words, we will continue to have a completely bought and paid for political system that's of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for morethan 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).