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A Small Victory Is Still A Victory

by Molly Ivins

The money in politics is now so bloated that no one can miss it
Whew! Wow! Whee! Holy cow! We won, we won, we won! What a battle, what a war, what a triumph!

OK, everybody, sober up, straighten out. The first thing we have to do is prevent rising expectations. McCain-Feingold is not The Answer. We have not fixed the problem. Long way to go, many more battles to fight.

But we are entitled to point out to everybody who said it couldn't be done: We won, we won, we won! Cynics lose; people win; democracy works. What a deal.

As Tom Oliphant said, "With this bill, every day is 'The Perils of Pauline.'" Every day for two weeks they tied the McCain-Feingold bill to the railroad tracks again. The bill teetered along its tightrope (to mix our metaphors), with Republicans firing at it steadily and the occasional Democrat trying to load on more than the rope could take.

Watching its shaky progress was excruciating, but in the end it carried, thanks to the people of this country. When Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, leader of the opposition, intoned, "This issue ranks right up there with static cling as far as the people are concerned," they all knew he lied. They knew because you called, faxed, wrote and e-mailed without cease. Way to go, people.

I grant you, the bill took one bad hit: the increase in hard money. Doubling the limit that can be contributed to an individual candidate from $1,000 to $2,000 in one year after 25 years may be justified on the grounds of inflation. But the fact is, only one-seventh of 1 percent of all Americans gave $1,000 to a candidate in the last election cycle.

According to the AFL-CIO, less than one half of 1 percent contributed $200 or more.

In a truly democratic society, the cap would be lowered, not raised. While the cap-per-candidate is arguable, what they did to the overall cap on contributions is grotesque. An individual can now give $75,000 total to federal candidates and/or parties over an election cycle.

That's $150,000 per couple, and with the practice of bundling -- for example, getting all the lawyers in a large firm to give the max to a certain candidate on behalf of a client with a problem -- you can still buy a disgusting amount of "access." "Access" is the Republicanally (if Bush can say "Hispanically," I can say "Republicanally") correct way to say, "I bought your vote."

In the Texas Legislature, this is known as an OPO, or Obvious Pay-Off.

So you don't have to turn in your cynic's card yet. In fact, if you want to get brownie points from Cynic Central, you can put your money on the proposition that the next time we get a president who won the money but lost the popular vote, instead of a tax cut proposal that gives 44 percent of the money to the richest 1 percent of the people, we'll get a plan that gives 44 percent of the tax relief to those in the 90-to-98th-richest percentage of the people. Practically upper-middle-class.

Some righteous people dropped their support for McCain-Feingold after the hard money cap got goosed so badly, including Public Campaign, the nonprofit, nonpartisan campaign finance reform group.

Public Campaign has been instrumental in passing public campaign financing, the only real solution to the money mess, at the state level. States are opting for publicly financed campaigns at a great clip.

Maybe I've been around the Texas Lege too long, but I believe in compromise. As dismal as the results are, I suspect that Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California actually won the compromise battle with Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

As Bob Bullock used to say, "Always take half a loaf." The key to political success is sustaining your energy and your passion long enough to go back and get the other half.

It seems to me that the correct context for judging the McCain-Feingold bill is the Marc Rich pardon. As Democrats have been feebly pointing out ever since this boil burst, Big George (Daddy Bush) did the same thing. He granted a pardon to a major contributor to his party (Armand Hammmer, $200,000 contribution, for an earlier conviction for illegal contributions), not to mention Bush's pardon of Caspar Weinberger for Iran-Contra.

As The Nation points out, that was "the equivalent of Clinton's pardoning Jim McDougal on the eve of a Whitewater trial." The principle is the same in both cases, so why did everybody come down on Clinton's neck for doing what other people have done without touching off this kind of hellacious reaction?

It's a difference in degree, not in kind. Not only is Rich's offense much greater than Hammer's, but the amount of money he contributed is so much greater that it finally just becomes gross. It's like the difference between being a few pounds overweight and 300 pounds overweight. The money in politics is now so bloated that no one can miss it.

Special-interest legislation passed for big contributors -- for example, the bankruptcy bill -- is so unsightly that it's hard to believe there are senators who still think that no one notices.

We may have lost the battle over principle long ago, but there comes a time when the degree of wrong is so unmistakable that you have to do something. I'd say we're lucky that our political system is still responsive enough to do something about it.

It was amusing to longtime Washington reporters that the Senate was sort of enchanted with itself for having an actual debate. The last time that it had one was at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. But this one was a dandy.

Good arguments on both sides. McConnell, the archenemy, is phenomenally knowledgeable about the political and legal consequences of messing around with campaign finance.

McCain. Feingold. How did we get that lucky?

Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut -- what a cool hand, what a champion. On the R side, I suspect that we owe most to Thompson, but Jim Jeffords of Vermont and the smart, persuasive double female senators from Maine -- Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins -- also worked like Trojans. A great team effort.

Congratulations to all.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor March 31, 2001 (

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