Why Washington Won't Clean Up Its Act

What Went Wrong and Why
By Elizabeth Drew
Birch Lane 278pp $21.95

It's a cliche that Washington has become a corrosive, mean-spirited place in the 25 years since Watergate. Political discourse has degraded into petty name-calling. The quality of our elected officials has declined. Political parties consider success at the polls more important than solving national problems.

The desire to put meat on the bones of those hackneyed ideas is what drove Elizabeth Drew to write her latest book, The Corruption of American Politics. While most Americans are perfectly willing to accept her thesis, they probably don't know why they believe it. She gives them reasons.

To Drew, the former longtime Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, the fundamental problem is the system of campaign finance. That's not a great insight. But only a handful of people in the U.S. really understand how the system works. Drew is one of them. She outlines how the money is raised (some of it borders on extortion), why lobbyists continue to give (they're afraid of losing access when they need it), and some of the newfangled methods lawmakers use to raise bundles of cash.

When Illinois Republican J. Dennis Hastert became House Speaker in January, for example, he offered lobbyists a chance for an audience with him--in exchange for a contribution to his Leadership Political Action Committee. Now, he strengthens his hold over House Republicans by doling out the PAC money they need to get reelected.

Another example involves the way that lobbying firms have morphed. Some excel at winning over grassroots support for an issue, while others are good at stimulating the ''grass tops,'' or the opinion makers who are sometimes paid to support causes. But some lobbyists contract to do nothing but shake the money tree. They advise politicians on how to concoct a controversial issue, then help them cash in when interest groups reflexively respond by making donations to open doors on Capitol Hill. Cynical lobbyists call this approach ''Astroturf.''

Drew doesn't hide her disdain for one of the most powerful lobbying groups, the National Association of Broadcasters, whose members have the power to stimulate grassroots activity through their programming. Because of that, and lawmakers' need for coverage and endorsements from local TV stations, incumbents are loath to cross the trade group. That's one big reason why campaign finance reform goes nowhere, says Drew. The industry opposes free airtime for campaign ads: Pols spent $532 million on TV ads in the '98 midterm elections, shattering the record of $356 million set in the '96 Presidential contest.

Drew laments that even when the campaign finance system's serious flaws are exposed, little is done. This was especially so after the '96 race, when Clinton denigrated his office by selling one of the country's most sought-after assets--the President's time. Here Drew excels, explaining in detail how the Clintonites escaped serious investigation and how their backers avoided criminal charges.

One way Clinton did this was by lampooning congressional inquiries as ''partisan witch-hunts.'' Drew quotes former White House aide Don Goldberg on the ''Damage Control 101'' strategy: ''If you don't have much to go on, you decry the partisanship....[News] stories will begin, 'In a hearing mired in partisanship,' and then they get to the subject of the hearing, and you've won.''

The White House and its spin doctors tested this strategy in 1995 to fend off criticism of the Waco siege that ended in the death of 86 Branch Davidian cult members. They employed it in the summer of '97 to blunt the election scandal hearings chaired by Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.). And they perfected it during Clinton's '98 impeachment hearings and trial.

Fixing the corrupt campaign finance system won't be easy, and Drew demonstrates why. For example, Democrats aren't as pro-reform as they sound, Clinton especially. She unveils the hypocrisy behind Clinton's repeated calls for reform that followed his breaking every rule in the book to win in 1996. And many Republicans aren't as anti-reform as you'd think. A majority of both houses, in fact, favors abolishing soft money, the unregulated donations from corporate heads, wealthy individuals, and labor unions that are supposed to go to political parties but inevitably end up supporting candidates. But because of the 60-vote filibuster rule in the Senate, a minority can always block campaign-finance reform.

Drew isn't a great writer, but she is a good documentarian, especially of the floor battles over reform in the last Congress. Possibly the book's greatest accomplishment is her revelation of how House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, connived and cajoled to keep campaign finance measures bottled up. They'll be at it again in September, when reform measures are due to come up--again.

The history of great reforms--women's suffrage, civil rights, minimum wage--is that they take a long time and aren't for the weak-hearted. So Drew remains optimistic. What can ordinary people do? The solution, she says, lies in voter revulsion. But when voters dismiss Washington as irrelevant and refuse to vote out of disgust, they forfeit the right to complain. Drew's message: Hold your nose, but vote.


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Why Washington Won't Clean Up Its Act

PHOTO: Cover, ``The Corruption of American Politics''

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