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If you believe President Bush, Kenneth Lay--one of his top financial backers and his "good friend"--was merely an equal-opportunity corrupter of our political system, buying off Democrats and Rep

The connections between Enron and the Bush administration run deep—and they should be investigated.

The Supreme Court, in the final week of June, handed down three decisions, each of which seems to endorse a valuable social principle.

In the first, involving the right of legal immigrants who have pleaded guilty to crimes in the past to a judicial review of deportation proceedings, the Court upheld the principle that no matter who you are, you are entitled to your day in court.

In the second case, the High Court affirmed the right of writers and artists to share in the wealth made possible by the new media. The case was brought by a group of freelancers who objected to the inclusion of their work in electronic databases without permission or remuneration; the group was led by Jonathan Tasini, the president of the National Writers Union and a man with an admirable mission.

In the third case, the Supreme Court made it more possible for Congress to provide correctives to the influence of money in politics by upholding Watergate-era limits on how much political parties can spend in coordination with candidates for federal office. Had the Court eliminated the restrictions, it would have legitimized the parties as cash-laundering machines for donors.

Left to be determined, in all three cases, are the appropriate remedies for the ills the rulings addressed, and the difficulty of fashioning these should not be underestimated. But it is heartening to see the Court acting in its proper role as the guardian of both the individual and society.

It's fitting that the first senator to become an independent in more than thirty years hails from Vermont, the state with the most advanced independent politics in the nation. Vermont gave maverick Republican John McCain a solid victory in the 2000 presidential primary--nearly half those voting were self-described independents, and one in seven said that campaign finance reform was their top concern. The Vermont Progressive Party, which has tenaciously focused on the needs and interests of average people, is firmly entrenched in Burlington, the state's largest city, and its gubernatorial candidate, Anthony Pollina, got 10 percent of the vote last year in a hard-fought three-way race.

Thus, Senator Jim Jeffords's decision was helped enormously by the political space for an independent path that had already been created back home and by the steady pressure from the state's Progressives, which kept the local center of gravity far to the left of the Bush-Gore mainstream. Says Pollina, "Jeffords is a smart politician, and he recognizes that Vermonters are really fed up with politics-as-usual, big-money-driven, major-party politics." Indeed, two-thirds of Vermonters polled said they approved of Jeffords's move, and his approval rating topped President Bush's by almost twenty-five points.

The question of the moment is whether more independents are about to come out of the Senate cloakroom. Conditions for such surprises are favorable and getting more so by the year. Since 1990 we've seen a remarkable proliferation of these free birds. Not only has Vermont's Representative Bernie Sanders become a Congressional institution, independents and third-party candidates have been elected governor in four states--Maine, Alaska, Connecticut and, most spectacularly, in Minnesota. After Ross Perot got nearly 20 million votes in 1992 as an independent, press speculation about the possibility of other maverick candidacies has become a fixture of pre-primary presidential coverage. Recall the fuss over Colin Powell in the fall of 1995 and the hyperventilating over Jesse Ventura, Warren Beatty, Donald Trump et al. in the fall of 1999. There's a market for outside-the-box politics, and demand is rising while supply is tight.

Even with all the barriers imposed by the two-party duopoly--discriminatory access to the ballot, unequal campaign financing, closed debates--public support for Congressional outsiders ticked upward throughout the 1990s. In his indispensable newsletter, Ballot Access News, Richard Winger reports that the vote for non-major party candidates for Congress rose to more than 4 percent of the popular vote in 2000, a level not seen since 1992, when anti-incumbent sentiment last peaked. Before that, you have to go back to 1938, when strong third parties in a few states skewed the total higher, to find such a strong expression of discontent with the duopoly.

Between 1990 and 1998 the proportion of voters registered as independents or third party increased more than 50 percent, while the percentage of registered Democrats and Republicans fell. Voter statements of their political preference--a looser definition than party registration--show the same trend. About 35 percent of the electorate identifies as independent, according to the University of Michigan's National Election Studies. Anecdotal evidence from the implementation of the motor-voter law suggests that a higher proportion of new voters are registering as independents, and the tilt is most pronounced among people under 30.

These are all signs of turbulence in the electorate. The Democratic and Republican parties are not as solid, or dominant, as they seem. Their ties to average voters through local political clubs and chapters have almost disappeared, replaced by manipulative TV ads driven by consultants and expensive market research. Add the weakness of their current leaders--their inability to articulate a clear philosophy or to govern effectively on behalf of anyone but the well-off, their petty feuds, negative attacks and their subservience to special interest campaign contributors--and you can see why there's widespread disenchantment among voters and a yearning for authentically democratic representation and strong, honest leadership. As more politicians see that there is less to be lost and more to be gained from maverick behavior, there will be more eruptions of independents.

For government to represent the interests of average people, public officials have to be liberated from their dependence on private interests to finance their campaigns.

The Senate's passage of McCain-Feingold was
welcome if only as a comeuppance to the Trent Lotts and Mitch
McConnells who had arrogantly defied popular sentiment by keeping the
bill under wraps for six years. There were several factors that made
the time right for McFein--including a strategic calculation by the
parties that they had reached soft-money parity--but paramount among
them was the prevailing climate of popular disgust with the sale of
the government to the highest bidder. For this the interest groups
that helped raise public consciousness with a steady flow of
statistics and gamy anecdotes about the American way of bribery and
extortion deserve great credit. Even George Bush has mumbled that he
would sign a campaign finance reform bill, which doesn't say much for
present legislative efforts but is a tribute to the critical mass
reached by pro-reform sentiment in the country.

The fact
that the Senate was even able to debate the bill seemed a freshet of
democracy released by a spring thaw. Once the threat of filibuster
and suppression by the leadership was lifted, a feisty debate bloomed
on the floor. During the colloquy ending in the 60-40 rejection of
one "compromise" that would have repealed a 1907 law banning direct
contributions from corporations, some of the fiercest denunciations
of corporate influence were heard since, well, 1907. Although Paul
Wellstone's amendment to allow states to apply public financing
systems to their own federal office races failed, it drew the support
of thirty-six senators and more than seventy major groups--labor,enviro, black, Latino, religious.

But let's not get carried
away. The bill that finally passed does little to alter a system
pushed to the brink of plutocracy by the obscene power of money (note
Bush's tax cut, incorporated in the budget bill the Senate next took
up, so blatantly weighted toward his wealthy supporters). And it bore
little resemblance to the measure John McCain and Russ Feingold
originally proposed, which promised a ban on unregulated soft money
and "bundling" (whereby givers maximize their influence by pooling
their contributions), limits on spending by candidates and political
action committees and provisions for free TV time.

The
struggle to win Republican co-sponsors cost the bill all these
reforms save the soft-money ban. But coming off a 2000 campaign that
saw an unregulated $500 million flush through the political process,
the passage of that ban was a meaningful achievement. Not nearly so
meaningful, however, as it would have been in combination with the
original McCain-Feingold reforms, and even less meaningful after a
final round of compromises doubled "hard money" contribution limits
for individuals from $1,000 to $2,000, increased the amount
individuals can donate to candidates and parties during an election
cycle from $25,000 to $37,500 and limited communication between
advocacy groups and campaigns so much that the bill could be read to
restrict legitimate public-interest lobbying.

These
"poison pills" proved too much to swallow for former McCain-Feingold
backers at Public Campaign, the US Public Interest Research Group and
the Alliance for Justice. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr.
complained, "When you talk to people I represent about campaign
finance reform, the first thing that comes to mind is not doubling
the amount wealthy donors can give to campaigns."

Jackson
and others can raise questions about the compromises that warped the
Senate bill when the House finally debates its version of McFein, but
they'll have a hard time making themselves heard in a body under the
iron thumb of Tom DeLay, poster boy for everything that's corrupt
about the current system. Also, Democratic leaders are having qualms,
fearing that the GOP advantage in hard-money raising may kill their
chances of financing a winning take-back-the-House-drive in '02. Even
if a bill passes, it could be defanged in conference committee,
giving Bush the innocuous bill he really wants to sign. And beyond
that stretch inevitable court challenges.

Reformers should
keep the heat on Congress with a new focus on the hard money system
that constitutes the vast bulk of all campaign dollars. They should
also understand that the real action will continue to be in the
states, where "clean money" bills, which contain the true and only
solution--full public financing of campaigns--are proliferating. Such
laws have already been adopted by Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts
(though statehouse Dems are shamefully trying to eviscerate the law)
and Vermont, and drives to pass them are now under way in
Connecticut, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin--and
municipalities like Austin, Texas. Americans are well aware that
their system is sick, and the Senate debate over McCain-Feingold has
left them more open than ever to the heroic remedies needed to cure
it.

US Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democratic side of the McCain-Feingold juggernaut that is on the verge of winning Senate approval of the most significant campaign finance reform initiative

The corporate class is flying high in Washington. With George W. Bush--CEO style and all--in the White House and the Republicans controlling Congress, the business community has been exploiting its enhanced clout. Workplace safety rules, ten years in the making and designed to prevent a million or so injuries a year, were scrapped in a few hours of Congressional action. A signal was sent: We Are Business. Hear Us Roar. At the same time, House Republicans rammed through the central provision of Bush's tax cut for the rich. And in another early action, the House approved a bankruptcy bill that favors creditors, among them MBNA America Bank, one of the largest issuers of credit cards and--coincidence? ha!--one of the largest corporate donors to Bush and the GOP in the election. But surely the most egregious display of corporate power was Bush's decision to reverse a campaign pledge to seek reductions in the carbon dioxide emissions of the nation's power plants after the coal and oil industries objected. Congressman Henry Waxman rightly called the move a "breathtaking betrayal" of Bush's promise to fight global warming.

All this activity has emboldened corporate lobbyists to plan other assaults. They want to rewrite privacy rules regarding medical records, beat back environmental and land-use regulations, open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, limit corporate liability for dangerous products, deep-six the federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry and undo the Clinton ban on road-building in 60 million acres of national forest. And don't forget tax breaks. Bush told the K Streeters who eyed the Bush tax package for special-interest tax breaks to keep their mitts off. But there's a tacit deal in the air. If the corporate crowd helps Bush win his tax cut this year, next year he'll help them get theirs.

None of this is a surprise. Bush and the Republicans are merely following the law of supply and demand: Donors supply campaign money, then they demand. Bush set records in terms of pocketing corporate donations, and Congressional Republicans--particularly those in the House under the leadership of majority whip Tom DeLay--have perfected the pay-to-play, in which they hit up the business community for campaign cash and then allow its representatives to participate in drafting legislation.

Which brings us to campaign finance reform. The Senate is poised to consider the McCain-Feingold bill, a modest initiative that would ban federal soft-money contributions and at least inconvenience the high rollers. Yet some Democrats are skittish, realizing that their party has become as dependent on soft money as the GOP. And labor is nervous about a provision that would limit issue ads. Regardless of the outcome of this debate, we need extensive reform going beyond McCain-Feingold, along with a fight-back on the GOP initiatives. Opposition to those initiatives does exist, including a coalition of 500 organizations working to combat the Bush tax cut. That, plus a spirited grassroots effort, could stop the Bush agenda while pushing progressive alternatives.

We learned a few things from Dan Burton's hearings into the Clinton pardons. We learned that Bill Clinton's pardon of billionaire expatriate Marc Rich was no last-minute rush job. According to testimony by White House aides and lawyers, Rich's pardon application was the subject of multiple White House meetings over a span of weeks, with White House lawyers opposing clemency for Rich every step of the way. Clinton, always his own worst enemy, alone assented to the lobbying efforts of Rich lawyer and former White House counsel Jack Quinn.

We also learned that Burton, while filling a few nights' bandwidth on the scandal-dependent cable news channels, would evade every attempt to place the pardon controversy in perspective, rejecting repeated requests by Democrats to call witnesses and solicit evidence on pardons past. This is not to make excuses for Bill Clinton, but Burton's refusal to examine past abuses of the presidential pardon starkly reveals an inquiry called merely to humiliate and punish a political enemy and those who worked for him, rather than to explore policy questions.

If Congress were serious, these hearings would necessarily address pardons by Clinton's predecessors, starting with Bush the First. Poppy Bush's pardons of Caspar Weinberger and other Iran/contra felons have been widely discussed but still deserve closer scrutiny: Not only did Weinberger & Co. break federal laws, abuse high office and deceive Congress; their pardons gave every appearance of protecting Bush himself from investigation. Then there is Armand Hammer, who in 1989 gave $100,000 to the Republican Party and another $100,000 to the Bush-Quayle Inaugural Committee just weeks before Bush pardoned him for illegal campaign contributions. And now comes Time.com's special report on Bush's last-minute pardon of Edwin Cox Jr. for bank fraud after James Baker wrote a note to the White House counsel, with a copy to Bush, describing Cox's father as "a longtime supporter of the President's." The elder Cox later pledged at least $100,000 to the Bush presidential library. CNN followed up with a report that the Cox family was a substantial contributor to the Bush family's campaigns and the GOP, including $31,500 to George W. Bush's gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.

The point is that Clinton's pardons of Rich et al. are scarcely unique outrages. Clinton exercised his unreviewable pardon power in ways that reveal much about his character but provide no hint of illegality. So what is the purpose of further hearings, beyond retribution? Surely not some constitutional amendment aimed at curtailing presidential pardons, which despite the abuses by both Clinton and his predecessors remain the only tool for a courageous executive to correct a serious injustice (a category for which a few of Clinton's pardons qualify).

The Clinton pardon fiasco does raise some important issues. Quinn invented a giant loophole in the law barring revolving-door influence-peddling in order to lobby his former boss. And cash for clemency remains an outrage whether it's about Marc Rich or Armand Hammer. But such pardons are scandalous in the same way that Congressional legislation friendly to corporate donors is scandalous. The pardon flap matters primarily because it further erodes public confidence that anything in our constitutional democracy can survive the polluting power of big-money donations.

Future Marc Rich-type pardons can be cured only by radical campaign finance reform--a far cry from the partisan dart-throwing on display in Dan Burton's hearing room.

The emerging fight over the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, which Senator John McCain has promised to bring up right after George W. Bush's installation as President, has little, if anything, to do with real reform. Rather, this is primarily an intraparty scrap over who will define the early days of Bush's term--Bush and Senate Republican leaders or the maverick McCain with Democrats in tow--and who will determine the new parameters of "bipartisanship." McCain needs sixty votes to stop the traditional filibuster by Republican leaders Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell, and with the turnover in the Senate, the Democratic gain of four seats and the conversion of Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran to the cause, McCain may now have them. But the Republicans may well try, with the witting or unwitting help of a few Democrats, to pass a toad and call it a prince.

The McCain-Feingold bill would do some worthwhile things. It would end the flow of unregulated soft money into national party coffers, codify the Supreme Court's Beck decision pertaining to the use of union dues for political purposes (which organized labor accepts, since it affects only a small number of nonunion members--those who pay dues for certain services and will be allowed to opt out of paying the portion spent on politics) and would possibly include a friendly provision offered by moderate Republicans to restrict how corporations and unions can spend money on political ads aired during the final months of election campaigns. Some Republicans may favor the bill because the Democratic Party is now almost even in the soft-money race. But nothing in it would end the money chase that keeps many good people from running for office; nor would it put a real dent in the process of influence-peddling that defines day-to-day life in Washington. Even at an estimated $457 million in 2000, soft money, the subject of so many New York Times editorials, amounted to only about 16 percent of the roughly $3 billion raised for this year's national auctions--ahem--elections. That's a big jump over the $265 million in soft money raised in 1996 but not much of a change compared with the $2.2 billion raised overall that year.

Feingold is a decent man who courageously called on his own party last summer at its Los Angeles convention to stop unilaterally the outrageous fundraising that goes on at those events. He understands the limits of his bill and is on record firmly supporting full public financing of campaigns, as is now done in Clean Elections states like Maine, Arizona, Vermont and (starting this spring) Massachusetts. McCain, on the other hand, is an excitable right-winger who has ridden the finance issue to unexpected stature. He's a far from reliable ally of reform groups, who are hungry to make some headway against the growing corruption of the electoral process by big money. And there lies the danger.

In order to pass a bill that Bush might sign, McCain has signaled that he may accept, in exchange for a soft-money ban, amendments that would allow an increase, possibly even a tripling, of the limits on hard money an individual may donate. Lots of incumbents--Democrats and Republicans alike--secretly like this devil's bargain, because they think it would make it easier to raise the hard dollars they so desperately need for their campaigns. They also argue, irrelevantly, that inflation has reduced the value of a $1,000 contribution, the limit set in 1974, to $300. The Supreme Court disposed of this argument a year ago, in Nixon v. Shrink, when it upheld even lower limits as a way to prevent electoral corruption, pointedly stating that "the dictates of the First Amendment are not mere functions of the Consumer Price Index."

An increase in the hard-money limits would certainly encourage "buy-partisanship"--the process by which wealthy donors buy one party and get the other free. Fewer than 121,000 people gave $1,000 or more to a winning federal candidate in the 2000 elections, less than 0.05 percent of the population. Tripling the amount they could give would further empower this narrow slice of America, which is disproportionately wealthy, white and male. It could also increase the gap between the business and labor contributions to a whopping billion dollars. Two leading reform groups, Public Campaign and US PIRG, are against any such trade-off, but others, like the business-driven Committee for Economic Development, are for it, with Common Cause somewhere in between. Labor and civil rights groups, their attention focused on Bush's Cabinet nominees, should take heed. The passage of a straightforward soft-money ban would be a good thing--and we'd like to see Congress look seriously at the Clean Election reforms taking root in the states. But this new Congress may try to pass a bad bill, call it reform and hope no one hears the protests.

Blogs

A secret tape of a senator at a Koch brothers event becomes an issue in a key Senate race.

August 28, 2014

Documents reveal how a mining firm quietly supported Wisconsin’s governor.

August 25, 2014

New York’s governor should accept the Democratic challenger’s proposal for debates about corruption—and more.

July 29, 2014

Grassroots movement forces Washington to get serious about real reform of a broken campaign-finance system.

July 10, 2014

A judiciary subcommittee holds the first hearing ever on the need for a constitutional remedy to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings.

June 5, 2014

Near tie in Mississippi forces runoff between a conservative and a conservative who says the conservative isn’t conservative enough.

June 4, 2014

Watch John Nichols at the Kansas City Library as he talks about his book Dollarocracy.

May 22, 2014

The Kentucky Senate race figures to be among the most expensive in the country, and that's likely to become an issue itself in the race. 

May 21, 2014

Janet Yellen admits evidence of how inequality is “very worrisome.”

May 7, 2014

North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones beats the bankers, the lobbyists and the neocons.

May 7, 2014