Who owns halls of Congress today?

Posted: Tuesday, June 06, 2000

Serious observers worry lest the deluge of big campaign gifts cross that invisible line between buying preferred ``access'' to legislators and actually buying votes. Casual private conversations among Capitol Hill insiders during the week prior to House passage of the China trade bill would have confirmed their worst fears.

Evidence of influence was ubiquitous, unabashed and flagrant. Seldom (I hesitate to say never) has a bill been more intensively or expensively lobbied. A taxi driver, picking me up at the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon of that week, asked if I'd been lobbying congressmen on the trade bill. When I said no, he suggested I was the first fare he'd had all week who wasn't.

He said out-of-town lobbyists had been talking to one another with startling candor in the back seats of his cab all week. Recognizing me as the former House speaker, he became very confidential. ``It isn't like it used to be here, Mr. Speaker. Things have changed.'' He cited actual figures he'd overheard, thrown freely between lobbyists comparing results in their canvassing for the China trade bill.

That was hearsay. I cite it as indication only that things must have grown pretty bawdy to shock one of the few remaining old-time Washington cabdrivers.

It is fair to report, however, that a slow and subtle change has come about in the way lawmakers consider and discuss legislation among themselves.

No longer do legislators talk so much of what their constituents want. Now it's what their contributors want. They speak unhesitantly. The focus is on the money, pure and simple. With enough money for TV blitzes, voters will come around, they feel. Without it, they feel endangered.

Little wonder. Campaign costs have become stratospheric. Legislators on average must raise $1,000 every day of their term in order merely to stay competitive. Watchdog groups say at least 60 percent more will be spent by both sides this year than in 1996. Campaign totals may reach $5 billion.

Time was when a member harboring monetary motivation for his vote would be ashamed to confess it, even to colleagues. Today lawmakers feel no such onus.

It isn't that there weren't persuasive ideological arguments both for and against the bill. Floor debate gave articulate expression to these, but that debate was rendered irrelevant before it began. Clinton and the big contributors had sewed it up.

There's something in the deal for almost everyone, except for wage earners at home and abroad. Clinton gets earned credit for a foreign policy triumph. Corporate investors get a green light for cutting lucrative long-term deals. China gets respectability, and U.S. dollars. Maybe U.S. consumers get some cheaper goods.

The working stiffs of the world? Well, they get the shaft. There'll be no pressure on China to require that its workers get decent wages or working conditions. More U.S. factories will move to the orient, lured by cheap labor. That's the bottom line.

Will we sell more U.S.-made consumer goods to Chinese? No time soon. Chinese workers aren't paid enough to afford them. People making 35 cents an hour at best can't buy new cars, refrigerators, computers, or much else. That's why we are running a $60 billion annual trade deficit with China, up one-fifth from last year.

With China in the World Trade Organization, there'll be order of a sort. Not exactly a just world order, but a profitable one for some. The WTO makes the rules. It understands and promotes profits, disregards wages and environmental concerns.

Is it premature to say that corporate America now owns Congress?

I'm not to the point of crying out, in paraphrase of holy writ, that they've made of our fathers' House a den of thieves. Neither lawmakers nor purchasers of favor think of what they do as theft because it is, by labored interpretation, quite legal. And it will continue to be so until there's serious campaign finance reform.

As for legislators who solicit and accept big contributions, conveniently embracing the dicta of their sources because they're so necessary to electoral success, about all that can be said is that they've been compliant in the subtle erosion of their time-hallowed institution (and of their own relevance) by practices, now rampant, which they either cannot or will not change.

But, for one who remembers how it was, it's sad. How sad!

Jim Wright is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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