Sierra Magazine


Legalized Bribery

When money talks, politicians listen

by Carl Pope

In 1903, in a deathbed interview with muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, Philadelphia political boss Israel Durham complained that "contributions to campaign funds are more regular, and therefore worse, than bribes." A bribe influenced only one decision, admitted the old fixer, but campaign contributions influenced the entire political process.

After Watergate, when the Supreme Court finally took up the scandalous issue in Buckley v. Valeo it said that contributions to candidates might be limited in order to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption. Yet the rest of the Court's ruling quashed hopes of genuine campaign reform, and have deviled it to this day. The Court ruled that campaign spending was a form of speech, and thus protected by the First Amendment. Since it is hard to bribe oneself, candidates could spend as much of their own money as they wished, as could independent groups operating in support of-but not in coordination with-a candidate.

The treasure hunt was on. Candidates had to have money, lots of it, more of it all the time. The $2 million in cash that created a scandal when Maurice Stans delivered it to Richard Nixon in 1972 would barely be enough to attract notice by 2001. One reason for the media's current apathy is that while political coverage on news and public-affairs programs has declined, political ads have become a major profit center for broadcasters. Last year, for example, when none of the major races in the San Francisco area was close and campaign spending was consequently minimal, local television outlets were driven to drastic expense cuts and layoffs.

The defenders of the present system pretend that campaign contributions do not corrupt politics because only "access" is purchased, not actual political decisions. During the debate on his reform bill this March, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) was excoriated by opponents like Kentucky's Mitch McConnell (R) for being unable to demonstrate exactly which senators had sold their votes. (To meet this test, of course, McCain would have had to read his colleagues' hearts and minds-or hide under their desks while they talked to their contributors.)

Even if only "access" is being purchased, do we really need to look further for the proof of corruption? The access in question is not just to the famous navy-bean soup of the Senate cafeteria or the mattress in the Lincoln bedroom. It's access to the nuts and bolts of the decision-making process. It's hard to see how this fails to meet the legal description of bribery: the exchange of a governmental act for money. If a local zoning officer charged $500 to hear a case, would anyone hesitate to label this corruption? If a judge agreed to meet privately with the lawyer who made the largest contribution toward renovating his chambers, would the scales of justice still be level? Why then is purchasing legislative access different? Israel Durham understood what was going on. So should we. So should the Supreme Court.

But the flood of special-interest dollars into politics doesn't only purchase access, it buys elections. Candidates who please those with money are better financed, and better-financed candidates are winning candidates. In last year's Senate races, the better-funded candidate won 85 percent of the time. In House races, the figure was 95.6 percent. Even if most people want clean air, as long as companies can buy politicians for less than it costs to retool their polluting plants, clean air will have to wait.

By equating money with speech, the Supreme Court gave the loudest voice in our political system to the citizen who has the most cash. In doing so, it decided a question that has dogged American democracy since the Constitutional Convention debated whether to give the vote only to property owners. One of the ugly secrets behind opposition to campaign finance reform is the surprisingly widespread belief that allowing elections to be purchased by those with money-what John Calvin called "the elect"-is not only acceptable but desirable. The often self-serving notion is that society ought to be run by the successful. Why? Because they'll be better at it-despite (or maybe even because of) their tendency to run that society for their personal benefit.

Today, the vote is increasingly owned by the commercial interests that swamp the system with legal tender. This has been true for a long, long time. It was true when Lincoln Steffens interviewed logging giant George Weyerhaeuser about how he assembled his empire out of public lands-"half the forests in America" as Steffens put it. "He told me what he did to get hold of the timber, how he did it, how he got and used power in politics," wrote Steffens. "He began with the ordinary practice of a businessman, contributions to campaign funds."

There is a counter to the cynicism that all this engenders. Steffens found it in political groups that seemed able to withstand the bribery and campaign corruption of his era. For example, he found the German socialists in Milwaukee unbribable. "It could not mean that socialists were different from other men," he commented, finding that "socialists were not particularly honest." Rather, he argued, it was their belief in a vision, "their imminent hope of a better world" that lifted them above the game of money politics. He concluded with two lines that should serve to inspire the environmental movement: "If it was vision that made such a difference in men, vision is what we need in the world. What vision, what belief in the future, could be introduced among men?"

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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