Selected Skirmishes: Coffee, Tea, or Me

Should a penny for your thoughts be illegal?


Right now, I have left my physical being and am floating in space. Everything below me looks very small. I am reading headlines coming off the wire service, and I am as concerned as any patriotic American–even those still living on Planet Earth–about graft and corruption eroding our politics. I see one article from the Associated Press titled "Lobbyists Still Use Connections." Then, still hanging in the clouds, I spy another: "Daley Pledges Reforms at Commerce."

I begin to spin. "Gore Admits Fundraiser Mistake," and a spiritual updraft from the Hsi Lai temple's $140,000 tithe to Clinton-Gore lifts me suddenly. "Bankers Met with Clinton, Regulator," and I am dizzy with revelation: The White House Map room was used for over 100 "coffee klatches" that brought CEOs, $2.7 million in corporate checks, and the regulators their shareholders fear most into cozy proximity.

Political junkies are tripping in an out-of-body experience. There is something magical, even otherworldly, with politicos who burst through the plane of common decency in the a.m. and speak so piously to the confessional reporter by afternoon. As president, Bill Clinton privatized the public sector like a small-state governor ordering state troopers to procure babes. His re-election campaign, seeing a tycoon pining for access, felt its knees knock. The interests were coldly targeted and shaken down, as the White House hosted a "high tech operation situated not far from the Oval Office and used to track and nurture potential donors," reports Time.

Illegal, schmeegal: The taxpayers' computer database sent out White House Christmas cards to 65,000 high rollers, issued invites to millionaires hot for the White House soiree, recorded "special dietary needs" of fat cats, and brought America's elite to private gatherings of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Fan Club.

Seamlessly, the president slips from the White House coffee klatch to the White House press conference and artfully yodels a denunciation of lobbyists–complete with the mating call of Washington statesmen, a cry for campaign finance reform. Who better to craft the new rules for political engagement than those who just shredded the last batch? Who better to clean up the Commerce Department than the scion of America's most corrupt big-city machine? Who better to assist the president than the neutered speaker of the House, a man whose keen sense of partisan pride led him to top Jim Wright's book royalties by a ratio of 90 to 1.

America's government is a colossus, and its rules are constantly changing. Therein lie the two primary reasons why special interests growl with an insatiable appetite for access to the rule makers, and why artificial caps limiting expenditures to influence politicians are a fool's paradise.

Like price controls, such rules attempt to limit money transactions without limiting demand; the predictable result is a spillover where folks who want to deal find each other. Like the "key money" bribes paid to apartment managers in rent-controlled New York City, "soft money" provides a back-door path for access buyers to meet up with access sellers. Countless other avenues are available. In fact, avoiding traffic congestion can become the foremost concern.

Even when the spending cap–via the trouble and expense associated with skirting the rules–reduces some demand, it is not clear that democracy sprouts. As when rent control helps the rich landlord's granddaughter claim a Soho loft the instant she graduates from Brown, a Joe Kennedy Sr. is not likely to be deterred: His subsidy of a ghostwriter for John's best-seller, Profiles in Courage, got the boy the best public platform that money could buy–without a penny of "campaign finance." It is unlikely that either a power-hungry millionaire or a lobbyist wishing to grease some ADM ethanol subsidy-type raid on the public purse will be discouraged because the loopholes are so easily negotiated by the pros–a snap, apparently, even to those whose only language is Thai.

Who's likely to be deterred by strict spending caps? The wealthy crank with an ax to grind–not about access but about his pet cause. The current $1,000 per person per election federal donation limit takes a Ross Perot out of the real debate unless he is willing to run for high office personally (and God help us then). Why shouldn't curmudgeons who hate Larry King but love their privacy be afforded the same right to make their points? All the while, Cokie Roberts drones on, lucky to be in a constitutionally protected line of work. She blows off any theory that doesn't appear on her radar screen–and uses millions of dollars of air time to do it.

Ted Turner has her beat, of course: CNN, just sold to Time Warner, lets him hire (and fire) producers, news anchors, pundits. Ted must now share his vision with Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, but who can deny the political clout? If you are merely a citizen of America–if you have made your money by saving lives or plowing fields rather than by reading teleprompters or buying networks–this right to shape the public debate is legally denied.

Serious campaign finance loophole-closers have no problem with Cokie, Ted, or Gerald–and big problems with Ross. Former Sen. Bill Bradley actually wants to trim the First Amendment to make it legal to stop the sort of political dialogue Perot spurred–as a candidate for president–with his own hard-earned dollars. In one sense, this is a blissfully honest approach. It squarely identifies the "loophole" to be closed: the constitutional right to freedom of speech.