Not Corrupt, but Corrupting

April 27, 1992

It's time for another lesson on what's wrong with Congress. The text for today is the campaign finance reports filed by the Maryland House delegation. Nothing extraordinary in them. Just a lot of money from faraway places. And that's what's wrong: A lot of businesses, professional groups and unions around the country are taking a great interest in the quality of your representation in Congress. Noble of them? The heck it is.

Why would several major insurance companies, U.S. dentists and the pharmaceutical business, for example, contribute to Baltimore's Benjamin L. Cardin?

Why would the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a California utility and a New York distiller contribute to Southern Maryland's Steny H. Hoyer?

Or why would the longshoremen's and seamen's unions, a California steamship line and a western railroad contribute to Northeast Maryland's Helen Delich Bentley?

Could these contributions have anything to do with Mr. Cardin's seat on the influential health subcommittee of the revenue-raising Ways and Means Committee, or Mr. Hoyer's key spot in the House Democratic leadership or seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, or Mrs. Bentley's seat on the Merchant Marine Committee?

True, none of these organizations directly gave the legislators campaign contributions. The money was funneled through political action committees. But no one is fooled where the money came from. Least of all the recipients.

Nor does anyone doubt the purpose. The contributions are not bribes. They aren't corrupt. But they are corrupting. The contributors would explain the affinity between their private interests and the House members' roles as simply supporting legislators who think the way they do. And there is something to that. But what they are really doing is buying access.

That's what is corrupting. Some people who are not constituents can gain the ear of a legislator when others -- even constituents -- can't. The legislative process is corrupted, even if the individual legislator is not. And the Congress is, at the very least, tarnished some more. The stain spreads across party lines: Mr. Cardin and Mr. Hoyer are Democrats, Mrs. Bentley a Republican. It matters little that Mrs. Bentley, unlike her two colleagues, received one-third of her contributions from PACs, while Mr. Cardin got two-thirds and Mr. Hoyer gleaned three-fourths of their war chests from PACs. The game is the same.

Meaningful limits on campaign spending or public financing of congressional contests are ideas whose time has not come. But the days of reckoning for Congress as an institution and for a great many of its members are approaching rapidly. PAC money is helping to grease the way.

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