Befuddled reformists' zealotry poisons politics Campaigns: The United States is actually basking in a golden age of openness and accountability.

THE ARGUMENT

June 02, 1996|By Theo Lippman | Theo Lippman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In a new book, "The Political Racket: Deceit, Self-Interest and Corruption in American Politics," (Ballentine. 263 pages. Paper, $12.50.), Martin L. Gross says Ross Perot has "called his work 'a handbook for cleaning out the stables' of federal government." Well, let me tell you, Gross can shovel it with the best of them, but he isn't cleaning out the stables, he's despoiling them.

His book is one of the worst examples of the genre - trashing American politics and American democracy as rotten to the core - that I have come across in years. He starts right off by charging that Americans are more anti-government than ever before and blames that on "PROFESSIONAL POLITICIANS" (his capitals). His tone and his selective use of statistics from there on to the end of the book make it appear that the present is the golden era of sleaze.

Which is wrong, by 180 degrees.

By political corruption, such writers as Gross mean the use of money by so-called special interests to influence government actions. It will no doubt surprise many Americans, subjected to a steady diet of assaults on the ethics and morality of government, to know that in fact we live in the golden age of political reform: Never before have politicians and the interests been so regulated and their transactions been so open to scrutiny.

And the close relationship of those with money to the politicians who write and execute laws is hardly the recent development so many reformers imply. Amitai Etzioni, an academic, wrote this in his book "Capital Corruption: The New Attack on American Democracy" (Transaction Publications): "There were, from day one, plutocratic tendencies, meaning persons and groups who command wealth - or other forms of economic power - and who sought to use it to corrupt the democratic government."

Journalist and popular historian Nathan Miller put it a little differently in his "Stealing from America: A History of Corruption from Jamestown to Whitewater" (Marlowe & Co.): "Corruption is as American as cherry pie."

Like those and other reformist writers, Gross focuses on money. His failing is that he doesn't put it in either a contemporary or historical context. For example, he writes, "MONEY is corrupting at every level. In 1996, politicians of all stripes will raise and spend an extravagant (even obscene) $1.5 billion for their elections."

What's extravagant about that? In the 1991-1992 election cycle, total spending for election activity was $3.2 billion, according to the excellent 1995 resource book "Financing the 1992 Election" by Herbert E. Alexander and Anthony Corrado (M.E. Sharpe). The authors put that in perspective. "That amount is less than the sum that the nation's two leading commercial advertisers - Procter and Gamble and Philip Morris - spent in 1992 to proclaim the quality of their products. It represents a mere fraction of 1 percent of the $2.1 trillion spent in 1992 by federal, state and local governments."

It is true, as Gross writes, that the trend is to spend more and more money on campaigns. (His $1.5 billion figure for 1996 is surely low and based on sloppy research.) Total campaign spending has been calculated only since 1960. It was thought to have been $140 million then. That is a far cry from $3.2 billion, but consider a couple of the reasons for the huge increase:

One is inflation; in today's dollars, the 1960 figure would be about $700 million. Also, the reporting of campaign expenditures (and contributions) in 1960, was primitive; that $140 million figure understates what was actually raised and spent by an unknown but large amount.

The fact that today we really know who gave what to whom and how it was spent is a triumph of hard-headed reformers of the 1970s. Every do-gooder for a century had sought such a spotlight on political money - and it is a little absurd, not to say uninformed, of today's critics to take the fruits of that and say that now that we know about something we didn't use to know about proves we are more corrupt than ever.

There is another reason people contribute more money to candidates now than in the past. Governments affect more people in more direct (and more costly) ways than they used to. In 1960 the unified federal budget was $92 billion. Now it is nearly four times that in constant dollars. Of course individuals and groups spend more money to influence government decision-making.

Corruption or democracy?

For an individual or group to give a politician a dollar or $1,000 or $100,000 is not in and of itself corrupt. Let's consider an example. Smith and Jones are running against each other for a U.S. Senate seat from Maryland. Smith believes Marylanders would benefit from increased development around the bay. Jones believes tough environmental restrictions are more beneficial.

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