What do Washington, Jakarta, Tokyo, Taipei, and Bangkok have in common? They are all capital cities where special interests, big money, and personal connections dominate national governments. Globalization is great when it comes to trade, but the importation of Asia's guanxi culture of money politics by Beltway politicians is a big mistake. Mainstream America is revolted by the staggering $1.6 billion being spent to elect 470 members to national office in 1996, with nearly all of the money coming from powerful lobbies.
Neither party is clean. President Bill Clinton and the late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown deserve credit for flying corporate execs around the world to open up markets. But Brown, a former Democratic Party chairman, unwisely put a fund-raiser on the staff of the Commerce Dept. with tight connections to an Indonesian family that subsequently gave big donations to the Democratic Party. The appearance of trading favors for campaign donations is striking.
The GOP Presidential candidate is campaigning against "foreign" money flowing to the Democrats, but Bob Dole blocked campaign finance reform for years in the Senate. The Republicans are as guilty as the Democrats of taking funds from foreign-owned corporations. Both sides have turned a blind eye to questionable uses of hundreds of millions of "soft dollars" donated by special interests.
Something must be done before public cynicism erodes all support for democratic institutions. So far, taxpayers have refused to foot the bill for congressional elections, and the U.S. Supreme Court views tighter spending limits as a violation of free speech. Until the orgy of special interest spending leads to a gigantic crisis, only one short-term remedy remains--open disclosure. There must be stringent new rules on who gives how much money to candidates and how that money is spent. The walls between profit and nonprofit organizations must be rebuilt, and the phony distinction between hard and soft contributions must be ended.
At a time when voters in Korea and elsewhere in Asia are beginning to repudiate their own culture of guanxi money politics in favor of open democracy, it is ludicrous for America to embrace a corrupting system of special-interest politics.