HED: Claptrap' drowns out campaign reformers

By Sid Salter

Daily Journal

Is anybody buying into all this campaign finance reform claptrap played out each night in sound-bytes on the national television news and at length on C-SPAN late at night?

I mean, this is entertaining stuff! You've got a sitting Democratic president whom Republicans say is turning the White House into a Holiday Inn for those rich enough to make a donation sufficient to warrant an overnight stay in the Lincoln Bedroom and the stately old rooms of the Executive Mansion into a Shoney's Breakfast Bar for heavy-hitter contributors.

There's the whole thing about the so-called Number One and Number Two leaders of the free world President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore working the political fund-raising phones like a couple of high school band booster club mommas selling chicken barbeque tickets on the taxpayers' nickel at the White House.

Then you've got your Republican National Committee big dogs like Mississippi's own Haley Barbour, who Democrats say took major league donations for his party's work from Asian businessmen seeking to purchase influence, access and status from GOP congressional leaders.

Shake that all up in an incredibly partisan sack and combine it with the biggest farce of a congressional investigation since the McCarthy Hearings. Add a dash of melodrama for the television cameras and the fleeting presidential aspirations of Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson and you get the current national tempest-in-a-teapot over campaign finance reform.

The whole question of campaign finance reform brings to mind for most the similarly skewed notion of federal prohibition.

At the inception of the national preoccupation with Prohibition, voters were hard-pressed to find a politician who didn't support the measure. In the process, American mores on alcohol consumption in that era dictated a federal policy of which the vast majority of even its most ardent public advocates were loathe to support, defend and obey.

In most cases, the historical record clearly indicates that most politicians in that era would deliver a fiery pro-Prohibition speech then retire to private quarters for a few stiff drinks with the boys.

Prohibition the great failed experiment came in with a bang in America and died with pitiful whimper. The more strongly the Prohibition laws were enforced by well-intentioned lawmen, the weaker the laws became. As a matter of fact, Prohibition really worked best when bootlegging was at its apex.

It's the same sort of symbiotic relationship visible in many Mississippi local option liquor elections the churchgoers and the bootleg whiskey sellers inevitably end up carrying the fight together for the "drys".

Like the drinking politicians of old who paid lip service to Prohibition because they couldn't afford politically to do otherwise, most proponents of campaign finance reform in Congress talk a great game about reforming the way we pay for our politics in America - but those some congressmen and senators breathed a communal sigh of relief last week when two key Senate procedural votes revealed that as most observers expected, Congressional support for campaign finance reform was 100 miles wide and an eighth-inch deep.

Like the political lushes who sang the praises of Prohibition before retiring to the back room for a snort, most campaign finance reform backers in Congress would have stayed longer in the Capitol to continue the reform debate, but they had to leave early to fly back home to their district to attend a fundraiser.

Very few taxpayers believes that leaders of either the Republican or Democratic Party seriously want substantive campaign finance reform.

It's like asking a bird to stop singing.

Modern-day politicians who know the obscene costs of the mass marketing of political ideas and ideals aren't about to go gentle into that good night on the question of how, when and where they can raise political capital.

They want limits alright - limits on the other guy, the other party, the other side of the labor/management split and the other side of the philosophical spectrum.

But almost to a man or woman in Congress, they don't want those same fetters applied to them.

Mississippi certainly didn't earn any brownie points in the campaign finance reform fights. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott offered a lot of tough talk on the subject as did senior Mississippi U.S. Senator Thad Cochran.

But their votes on the procedural tests that almost surely signalled the death of campaign finance reform during this session, Lott and Cochran cast votes that clearly supported the status quo.

Those votes don't necessarily indicate that Mississippi has bad leadership in the U.S. Senate, but it makes it clear that we will see more talk than action on the topic of campaign finance reform from our otherwise dynamic pair of Republican senators.

Both parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, are addicted to political "soft" money - now at the heart of the current campaign finance reform debate.

Clinton is addicted to it. Trent Lott is addicted to it. The political parties they represent are addicted to it.

And as long as money is the mother's milk of politics in America and "soft" money is its crack cocaine, we as taxpayers will continue to see abuses of the process.

But don't look to Washington for help here. That's like asking the fox to supervise bedcheck in the henhouse - what you end up with is a sly grin and the occasional burped feather.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist and editor of the Scott County Times in Forest.

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