That's Your Congressman's Hand Out

RICHARD REEVES

December 26, 1991|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The Baltimore Sun printed a cartoon by KAL the morning after the best Democratic presidential debate so far this year showing California's prodigal former governor, Jerry Brown, with his hair flying and eyes popping in classic mad scientist mode. He was yelling, ''Nuke Washington!''

That seems to be the conventional wisdom about Mr. Brown's repeated jeremiads about money in modern politics. The New York Times editorially declared that he lost the debate. Papers and politicians that I saw the next day described Mr. Brown as, among other things, rude, abrasive, obnoxious, not likable and crazy.

Well, without getting specific, Jerry Brown is and always has been a few of those things. In fact, they left out hypocritical, cynical, sanctimonious, inconsistent and unpredictable. They also left out ''right.'' What Mr. Brown is saying happens to be the truth.

American politics has been or is being destroyed by a poisonous mix of money, misguided idealism, television greed and legal sophistry. There are six things worth knowing now about American campaign financing:

1. Television commercial time is very expensive, and so is direct mail in districts too small or too big to make television audience coverage effective.

2. Campaign contribution limits -- usually of $1,000 -- are much too low, forcing incumbents and candidates to go after thousands of contributors rather than the few fat cats of the bad old days.

3. Most elected officials spend most of their time -- more than half their waking hours every day of every year -- begging for money, usually from strangers, by telephone or at power breakfasts and cocktail receptions. That is what they do for a living: They beg and beg and beg.

4. Congressional fund raising has gone national because it is almost impossible to find enough $1,000 contributors in a single district or state. Follow the money. Modern legislators do not actually represent geographical areas anymore; rather, they seek out or are sought out by groups of contributors (political action committees) interested in single issues that line their pockets or tickle their fancies.

5. The same people and groups are financing both sides. Call them Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals, most incumbents are getting money from the petty cash drawers of the people President Bush calls ''the investing class.''

6. The only politicians free of dependence on the investing class are those in it. Because of Supreme Court rulings that money is speech, using your own money to buy elections is guaranteed by the freedom-of-speech provision of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Jerry Brown may be impolite and will probably turn out to be impotent, too. But if we did not have him, we would be wise to invent him. He is so out of it now that he is probably the only old pol in the United States who can talk about what is really going on in Washington.

Almost everyone else we hear from politically these days is in on it. They beg all day and all night. They do not want to keep this fact a secret because they are evil or because they are skimming the money to buy their wives jewelry and face-lifts (or their husbands sports cars and season tickets). The reason they don't want to talk about these things is because they are ashamed of what they do every day.

This is not why most politicians wanted to get to Washington. They wanted to stand up and be counted; instead, they are kneeling and counting the cash thrown at their feet. They hate the system more than most of the people voting against them.

Yes, Jerry Brown, late of tours of Shinto Japan and Mother Teresa's Calcutta, may confuse self-awareness with self-righteousness. But no matter how crazy he is, he is in better shape than a lot saner-looking politicians strangling in self-disgust.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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