First there was good news. Let’s hear it for the U.S. Senate, a profile in courage. A 57-42 vote on requiring “527s” – the tax-exempt organizations that secretly raise and spend millions to influence elections – to actually report who gives them money and how they spend it. Amazing.
Then let’s have a big, fat raspberry for the House, which voted against the measure, 216-206. That’s even more amazing, since a majority of the House managed to gut it up and vote for McCain-Feingold last time, and these 527s are much worse than the soft-money problem. Congratulations to Majority Whip Tom DeLay and the rest of the Republican leadership for allowing this rank corruption to continue. The 527s were discovered by tax experts in ’96 and have multiplied like maggots. They’re phony front groups that can spend unlimited amounts from anonymous sources. One notable case was Republicans for Clean Air, which ran attack ads against John McCain and turned out to be the billionaire Wyly brothers of Dallas, friends of George W. Bush. Something billing itself as Shape the Debate has ads attacking Al Gore.
DeLay is raising money for a 527 to help congressional candidates, and of course, the Democrats are setting up theirs as fast as they can. Help stop this madness now! There’s a 75 percent chance, according to Common Cause, that the measure to force disclosure from the 527s will come up again in about a month. This gives you time to write your congressperson, or e-mail, or fax, or phone.
Here’s where we are on the legal corruption front: By 1988, a few small holes had appeared in the dam set up after Watergate to control political money. By 1992, money was gushing through bigger holes; by 1996, the money was slopping over the top of the dam. This year, the whole dam is gone. Corporations, labor unions, big rich people, Newt Gingrich, and even nonprofit groups are setting up 527s so anonymous donors can buy our elections. Bush has been saying for years that he thought the only campaign finance reform needed was full disclosure. That’s all we’re talking about here. This is an easy shot for him. He could shut down his 527s unilaterally and then dare Gore to do the same.
Heaven knows there’s already enough Republican soft money, which does have to reported, to choke a goat. W., this is your chance to be a real reformer. Gore is so cowed by having the Buddhist-temple albatross around his neck that he’s for every reform anyone can think of. Gore says the 527s are the equivalent of Swiss bank accounts for politicians. The problem is simple. The party in power, the one with the most incumbents, gets most of the special-interest money because incumbents are overwhelmingly likely to be re-elected. So whatever party is in power is opposed to campaign finance reform. Democrats, theoretically, favor reform, in part because business money goes mostly to conservatives, and business money in politics outranks labor money by a large margin (in case you were wondering why permanent trade status for China got through Congress). So when the D’s were in, the House would pass reform and the Senate wouldn’t, or vice versa.
The R’s just vote against it, under orders from their leaders, who aren’t about to throw away a money advantage like the one they’ve got. All honor to the fourteen Senate Republicans – including our Kay Bailey Hutchison – who crossed Majority Leader Trent Lott to vote with John McCain and Russ Feingold. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s always hard to go against your party leaders. Our man Representative Lloyd Doggett of Austin, who has been leading the fight to at least get the 527s to disclose their sources, says they are “political super-weapons.” They’re also nasty. According to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center reported in the Chicago Tribune, in the 1996 election, 40 percent of the ads sponsored by independent groups were negative attack ads, as opposed to 24 percent of candidate-generated spots. And you know that’s going to get worse now that they can do it anonymously.
Who would have believed it could get worse than it already was at the beginning of this year? We really are going to kiss democracy goodbye with this one.
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her recent book from Random House, with Observer editor Louis Dubose, is Shrub: The Short and Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. You may write to her at [email protected]