The Other Shame Of Bob Packwood

The diaries of Senator Bob Packwood show that his political life was as sleazy as his private one. The documents are a sad chronicle of abuse of power and a misbegotten mix of campaign contributions and special tax legislation. If this scandalous kind of influence-peddling is typical of Washington behavior (as Friends in High Places, the latest book on insider Clark M. Clifford, tells us it is), then lobbying and campaign-finance reforms must come at once.

The Packwood diaries are a window into a legislative chamber of horrors. His drinking buddies were lobbyists who used their access to the senior Republican on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee. The lobbyists raised cash for Packwood campaigns while their clients had issues pending before the committee. In the diaries, Packwood admits to a lobbyist for Shell Oil Co. that he was doing him a favor by getting a special oil tax bill passed. The man was a close personal friend who raised money for his reelection.

Before the Senate Ethics Committee investigating his behavior, Packwood insisted: "I don't trade my vote for money." But according to the diaries, that didn't stop him from asking a lobbyist for one foreign company for a $7,500-a-year retainer for Packwood's soon-to-be-divorced wife.

Packwood does not stand alone in his cynical attitude. For too long, senators and congressmen have confused clients' interests with national interests and personal favors with principle. Even now, the House, under Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), refuses to take up lobbying reform, and the greediest gorgers on PAC money these days are the freshmen Republicans elected in 1994 on a platform of changing Washington. How sad it is to see them in Congress, shoulder-to-shoulder with lobbyists, thanking them for helping write legislation that will only benefit their clients.

What's needed now is an aggressive, three-pronged effort to cleanse the cauldron. First, special-interest money should be eliminated as quickly as possible. The House should follow the lead of the Senate, which already has passed legislation banning gifts, ending an era of Caribbean cruises paid for by special-interest groups. The Senate also has passed legislation that forces lobbyists to disclose their activities, and for the first time requires those who lobby the executive branch to list themselves as lobbyists. This would reinforce President Clinton's recent executive order on White House lobbying disclosure requirements.

Second, the penalties for evading existing donation caps should be toughened, including much larger fines and possible prison terms. The Packwood diaries outlined how so-called "independent" expenditures are often illegally coordinated with a campaign--so a group can spend far more than the legal limit on behalf of a candidate. Also, "soft money" (which, by law, is to be used for building party organizations) is often funneled improperly to specific campaigns, as Democrats accused then-National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Phil Gramm of doing for Packwood in the 1992 election. These soft-money contributions allow corporations, unions, and large individual contributors to evade donation limits by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to party organizations. This is wrong and should be stopped immediately.

Campaign reform is trickier. Fully financing campaigns with tax dollars would be expensive--costing perhaps $500 million--and unlikely ever to pass Congress. A reasonable alternative would be to limit the maximum contribution by political action committees to the same level as individual contributions--$1,000 now. That would reduce--but not eliminate--the money flow. In addition, there should be a voluntary spending limit. If one candidate spends over the limit, then tax money would be provided to his or her opponents. The Packwood diaries show just how deep the corruption runs. It's time to do something about it.

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