Democracy at Its Best

July 01, 1994

Alan Neece, a lobbyist who contributed $5,000 to eat salmon and chicken with Paul Sarbanes last Tuesday, explained why:

"I've talked to a lot of senators tonight. It's access. Otherwise you have to stand in line at the Capitol to say 'thank you' to a senator who's walked the plank. This is democracy at its best."

No, it's influence peddling at its best. The Senate is so ashamed of itself that it voted last year to ban exactly this. Under this still-pending proposal, no lobbyist could contribute to a senator's campaign fund (which is what the dinner was for) for a one-year period from the date of contact with a federal officeholder, official or staff assistant. Contributors would be prohibited from lobbying the recipient of contributions for one year after making a contribution. You can bet that were such restrictions in force now, Mr. Neece would have dined at home.

Paul Sarbanes voted to end lobbyists' paid-for access. But, he says, in defense of this and other fund raising he will engage in this year, two wealthy candidates are seeking the Republican nomination to run against him this year. They'll spend lots of their own money in the campaign. "I know they're going to launch a heavy attack on me," he says. "We have to withstand it."

Even if he ends up facing a free-spending millionaire in the fall, Senator Sarbanes won't be much of a financial underdog, if at all. He has long been a good fund-raiser, in and out of Maryland, and now that he is likely to be the chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee next year, he is doing even better.

And if the Senate campaign finance reform bill that would restrict lobbyists becomes law, millionaires will have even less of TC chance to oust an incumbent. Why? Because for a challenger to oust an incumbent, lots of money is vital, and not just for heavy attacks. Such a candidate has to spend to become known. Everybody knows who Paul Sarbanes is but, according to a Mason-Dixon Poll released last weekend, 74 percent of Maryland voters never even heard of Ruthann Aron, one of the Republican millionaires the senator fears. For her to run a competitive race against Senator Sarbanes, she would probably have to outspend him.

The "reform" bill says that if she spends more than a set cap and he doesn't, she is not eligible for federal aid, but he is, even while he still takes special interest money. Even if she spends under the cap, she is not eligible for federal aid if she spends more than $25,000 of her own money on her campaign. The Senate bill would do a real number on millionaire challengers of incumbents.

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