Republicans and Democrats Are in It for the Money, the Power, the Prestige

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The hot new restaurant in Washington is the Caucus Room. Picture lobbyistsand lawmakers sipping wine from oversized glasses and relishing tenderfilets. Trés chic.

It's no surprise that two of the major investors in the Caucus Room sit onopposite sides of the political fence. Tommy Boggs is the son of the formerDemocratic House majority leader and a principal in the powerful Democraticlaw and lobbying firm Patton & Boggs. Haley Barbour is the former head ofthe Republican National Committee and a top dog at the Republican lobbyingpowerhouse of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers. Their restaurant deal sheds lighton how the political class operates in the nation's capital: Democrat orRepublican, it doesn't matter. It's about money and power and keeping itthat way.

Boggs and Barbour aren't enemies, they're pals. In fact, most everybody getsalong well in Washington politics, at least when the cameras aren't rolling.The partisan shouting matches on Capitol Hill? They're for the rubes outsidethe Beltway. Got to keep those contributions rolling into the RNC and theDNC.

But ideas? Real philosophical differences?

No. It's theater. That's why Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott feignedfrustration when the GOP Congress couldn't work out a deal with theDemocratic White House over a difference of "only $30 billion in a $2trillion budget."

We don't have a Republican Party and a Democratic Party. We have anIncumbent Party.The political system in Washington, particularly in the House, is rigged.The percentage of incumbents who won re-election last fall was a stunning 98percent. Only a handful of races are competitive. Yet outside the Beltwaypeople want the government off their backs. That's why more than two-thirdsof Americans back Social Security privatization. It's why a recent GallupPoll showed the following: When asked which posed the greatest threat to thefuture of the country, 7 percent said big labor, 22 percent said bigbusiness, and 65 percent said big government.

If you want to see common sense manifested in Congress, then competitiveHouse races must occur. The best way to do that is to repeal the $1,000limit on contributions to federal candidates. Nothing disturbs an incumbentmore than a well-funded challenger. To an incumbent, the ideal contributionlimit is zero; the less money in the campaign, the better his chances.

It's no coincidence that sky-high re-election rates jumped when the SupremeCourt ignored the First Amendment and upheld the contribution limitscontained in the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act amendments. The effectof contribution limits is spending limits, and the effect of spending limitsis the stifling of political opposition.We are told that the political system is awash in "obscene" amounts ofmoney. Last year we saw $3 billion spent on federal races. A lot? Notreally. Considering the $2 trillion federal budget, it's pocket change -- amere $15 per eligible voter. And if you consider money as a proxy forinformation, there's a strong case that voters need more spent on campaigns.A 1996 survey by The Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation and HarvardUniversity found that two-thirds of those interviewed could not name theirrepresentative. Three out of four didn't know that a senator is elected to asix-year term.

Of course, the conceit is that political spending is not about disseminatinginformation but about bribing politicians. I asked a Senate committeechaired by Phil Gramm, R-Texas, if someone could name a politician inCongress who was on the take. After all, if this corruption is so endemicthat our First Amendment liberties should be suspended, names should benamed. But names are never named in this sham crusade.

Two groups benefit by keeping money out of politics: the Incumbent Party andthe media. Journalists become the chief gatekeepers of information whenprivate contributions are restricted. It is not for nothing that Washingtonpols and scribblers are the biggest cheerleaders for so-called campaignfinance reform. They're probably raising their glasses to the idea rightnow. At the Caucus Room.

Edward H. Crane

Ed Crane is president and CEO of the Cato Institute, a nonpartisan public policy research organization in Washington, D.C.