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Money Buys Political Power
Stephen Todd

With the recent criminal investigations into the Enron Corporation, our need for campaign finance reform has become even clearer.  As the justice department attempts to discover whether or not the company's campaign contributions have influenced the policies of the current white house administration, we must ask ourselves whether this is a common occurrence or an isolated incident.

Without assuming what will come out of the Enron investigations, we can recognize that there are a number of important issues raised:  Is it fair that candidates vote according to the wishes of their contributors?  Do contributions give such donors more access to politicians?    

The executive branch: How the presidentís donors are paid in full:  The president has the ability to draft legislation and then present it to congress for a vote.  Most notably, President George W. Bush asked congress to take a look at his Economic Stimulus Plan.  He claims that it would give businesses tax breaks and bailouts in order to help them pay off creditors, and prevent them from laying off thousands of workers.  However, under the original draft of the plan that was passed by the House of Representatives, large amounts of money would have ended up in the hands of very few, namely, those who had donated substantial funds to the president and the republican party(1).   For example, Chevron Texaco has given the republican party more than $5.2 million since 1990.  Under Bush' stimulus plan, they stood to receive around $572 million in the form of a retroactive tax cut.  Enron has given $5.5 million during the same period, and they stood to receive $254 million.  General electric stood to receive over $600 million in return for there contributions of less than $2 million.  The list could go on extensively.  It seems obvious that the money spent to get a candidate elected is much less than the eventual pay backs.

If this is not bad enough, the package approved by the House also gives a tax break on foreign profits to companies such as Merrill Lynch and Citigroup.  Not only is this problematic because of the large returns these companies receive from their investments into certain candidates or political parties.   As the Washington Post reported, "it's hard to see how this measure would do anything to stimulate the American economy.''  This bill directly demonstrates the powerful impact that can be made by large donations to political parties.  Not only will candidates reward their donors with large pay backs, they are even willing to do so at the expense of our nation during its time of need.

Congressional Branch: Where profits meet partisanship:  The influence of donors works similarly in congress.  Just as the president, a congressman can submit legislation for vote.  Also in the same way, the legislation is often based upon the wishes of a congressmanís donors.  Members of congress can show the influence of their donors by adding various amendments - that may seem totally irrelevant - to legislation that is often urgently needed (disaster relief aid, for example).

This is when the need for campaign finance reform becomes most evident.  The aforementioned Economic Stimulus Package was passed by the republican majority in the House of Representatives, most of whom share the same donors as the president.  That version of the bill was defeated in the democratic-controlled Senate.  When donors exert their influence over the legislative branch, congress becomes full of partisan bickering.  The entire process begins to take on the tone of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours", until one side ends up ahead.  The needs of the people are never placed first.

Again, this is not an isolated incident.  After the recent acts of terrorism, it became obvious that our nation was not prepared to deal with such large scale attacks.  In response to the threat of bioterrorism, both the Senate and the House drafted legislation to stockpile the nationís supply of vaccines.  The sponsors of this bill were Billy Tauzin (R-LA.) and John Dingell (D-MA) in the House, and Bill Frist (R-TN) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) in the senate.  They have all received large contributions from pharmaceutical companies and healthcare agencies ($35,000; $32,000; $116,000; $75,000 in 2000 respectively)(2).  Obviously, there could be a need for these vaccines.  And in such a case, it would be much better to be safe than sorry.  But the pharmaceutical companies are using this an excuse to lobby for deregulation of the industry, and this is something that will not affect bioterrorism.  This is something driven, not by a desire to help the American people, but by a desire to profit.

In the House Energy Plan, H.R. 4, the controversial measure to open  up parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling was included(3).  This measureís passing is largely due to the substantial donations made by the oil industry to the republican controlled house and the president.  Even so, representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), John W. Olver (D-MA) and Wayne T. Gilchrest R-MD) - none of whom receive much, if any, money from the oil industry - stood against the drilling and gave examples of more profitable, and environmentally sound ways of curbing our nations need for oil(4).  Their proposals intended to require auto manufactures to make sport utility vehicles and light trucks meet the same fuel efficiency standards as cars by 2007.  This plan would significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and would save over a million barrels of oil per day, which is the maximum amount of oil that President Bush thought could be gained from the Arctic drilling. 

The one million barrel per day savings does not even take into consideration an additional proposal to increase fuel efficiency in cars.  In this situation, it can't be doubted that the big oil companies have the president and the house of representatives firmly clasped in the palm of their hands.  There is no way that a government so entrenched in a system of donations and pay backs, and so loyal to the will of an industry, can produce legislation that is drafted in the best interest of the people.

(1) According to Common Cause and Citizens for Tax Justice, mentioned in congressional records S11932, a speech by Senator Feingold.
(2) This, and all financial data, is received from the Center for Responsible Politics, Rpt. unless otherwise stated.
(3) HR.4.IH, SAFE Act of 2001, Division F, Title V, sec. 6502-3
(4) House Documents H2716 - H2717