With TV at its core, politics will be corrupt

September 22, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- In all the recent debate on reform of America's political campaign financing, there has been little sign of a willingness to acknowledge why all this money is needed. It is needed to buy commercial time on television. To talk about campaign financing without talking about where the money has to be spent is like talking about the solar system and not mentioning gravity.

Because of television's demand for money, supplying money for political campaigns has become a major industry. Campaign money is big business in America. The coalition of those who are part of this business now is so wide, so rich, and so powerful that it probably cannot be stopped. Broadcasters, politicians, lobbyists and industry all want to keep things as they are (or make them worse, from the reformer's viewpoint).

That is why the existing reform debate is largely irrelevant, and even serves to divert attention from the real issue, which is that political campaigning on commercial television has fundamentally corrupted the political system.

Before the 1996 elections there was considerable talk of free television time for candidates, and some broadcasters made time available. Free time, unfortunately, is not the answer. Free time does nothing to diminish the demand for commercial time; it merely gives some exposure to poor candidates.

Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is still trying to get U.S. broadcasters to meet specific public-interest obligations, including (as he proposes) $400 million worth of free time for political debate.

This still does not address the fundamental problem. The U.S. is virtually unique among the mature democracies of the world in limiting access to political office to those with a great deal of private money to spend to be elected, or those prepared to beg the necessary money from others who want favors from government.

In a disastrous 1976 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that spending money to obtain political office is a form of constitutionally protected free speech, and no restriction can be placed on it. Burt Neuborne of the New York University Law School (former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union) wrote: ''the Supreme Court, by treating money as speech, has virtually doomed campaign-finance reform.''

Those who profit

Until that ruling is reversed, if it ever is reversed, nothing basic can change. Broadcasters are against any change because they are the people who profit the most from things as they are. Nearly all the private money raised for all the political campaigns in America eventually goes to them. Each national election produces a huge transfer to them of public funds as well.

Nearly all their counterparts elsewhere in the world are barred from commercially profiting from elections. Broadcasters abroad are required to contribute to the national debate, and the national interest, by furnishing the air time necessary to the VTC conduct of elections. This is their exchange for the privilege of otherwise using regulated public airwaves for their business.

The lobbyists who give the money to America's political candidates do not want a change, because the current situation legally authorizes them to pay what amount to bribes to legislators to advance the interests of their clients. Change would put them out of business. Or it would force them to turn themselves into public-relations agencies or advocacy groups compelled to use argument and public persuasion to influence legislation. Giving money to politicians (and ultimately to the broadcasters) is easier and quicker.

The industries, unions, private individuals and foreign governments who are the clients of the lobbyists do not want change, because that would deprive them of their opportunities to exert special influence on legislation and obtain special favors at public expense.

Politicians might themselves like a change, some of them at least. While being courted by lobbyists can be agreeable, the unending task of raising campaign money is irksome, humiliating, and destructive of the politician's ambitions to public service.

When a legislator takes money from a special interest, and delivers what the contributor wants -- and eventually he has to deliver, or be driven from politics -- he must know that he has been bought, whatever the rationalizations. This is an acknowledgment hard for an honest man or woman to live with.

What is to be done? The corruption is so great, and so deeply institutionalized in the American political system today, that it is hard to see it eradicated by anything short of the aggressive trust-busting regulatory legislation of Theodore Roosevelt's governments, early in this century, which transformed American capitalism.

I see no sign of such a movement today. Could it succeed, if it existed? The coalition of interests which profit from today's system is much more powerful than the ''trusts'' Roosevelt attacked. It controls nearly all the principal means of public communication in the country.

One thing seems clear. Until paid commercial advertising for political candidates is ended in the United States, democracy in the country will steadily weaken, and plutocratic power will mount.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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