The pollution of politics

April 5, 1999

Many pollutants are beneficial when used as intended. Had the Exxon Valdez not foundered, its cargo would have provided energy to thousands.

With money in politics, however -- especially big, private money -- it is the intended effect that is polluting. Special interests give politicians donations to help them win elections and to earn credit from the victors when they take office. The bigger the contribution, the greater the credit. Left out are average citizens who contribute only a vote and who understand, increasingly, that many politicians prefer the money.

Last year, Massachusetts and Arizona residents passed election reforms that rely heavily on public financing. This followed reports of campaign abuses; even Congress gave a nod toward reform.

But now the nod looks more like a wink. Neither branch of Congress is pushing even the most basic reform -- to eliminate notoriously corrosive soft money contributions.

And candidates far and near are acting more callous than ever. The news out of Austin, Texas, last week was not only that Governor George W. Bush had raised more than $6 million in less than a month toward a presidential campaign that is not even announced yet, but also that he is considering bypassing the well-established system of partial public financing. If Bush and publisher Steve Forbes run a megabucks campaign that explodes past voluntary limits and vastly outspends their competitors, the loser will be democracy.

In Massachusetts, funding needed by the Clean Elections system approved by the voters is likely to win support in the Senate but was not recommended by Governor Cellucci, and the House position is unclear. Meanwhile, Cellucci and several other officeholders are taking in contributions that will probably exclude them from Clean Elections funding -- putting them back in the big money past.

The Massachusetts Money and Politics Project reports that 90 percent of contested legislative races last year were won by the candidate who spent more. Money wins. Private special-interest money pollutes.