The Corrosive Power Of Money Politics

Corporate America has it half right. a new BUSINESS WEEK poll shows that a CEO backlash is building up against soft-money campaign contributions. Shaken down by both Republicans and Democrats in the 1996 election for over 200 million soft dollars--triple the take from 1992--chief executives are starting to think about just saying no. Some already have.

That's all to the good--but not nearly good enough. CEOs complain that politicians control the unrestricted funds and use them for all kinds of purposes and candidates. Execs favor more direct giving. They want to raise the $1,000 limit on individual contributions and retain the $5,000 limit on corporate political action committee donations, both of which go directly to candidates. That way, top executives get to target the money and control its impact.

In a nutshell, CEOs want more bang for the buck. But they still see nothing wrong with buying access to and influencing politicians. There's the rub. Public cynicism about the political process is soaring. Fewer and fewer people bother to vote because they believe they cannot compete against powerful special interests.

The danger is that the U.S., through the campaign finance process, is slowly moving down the slippery slope of Third World political corruption. As it nags China and other nations to follow the rule of law and build transparency into their economic systems, Washington is shifting to a kind of political system that has besmirched Italy, Korea, and Japan for decades. Money politics is bad not only for democracy but for economic growth as well. When contributions--not competition--rule, the efficiency of market capitalism suffers.

As long as government regulates and taxes, corporations and private citizens have a right to be heard. But the notion that donations legitimately buy that right is corrosive. The campaign finance issue is not one of efficiency but of equity and fairness. The public already despises its political leaders because it doesn't trust them to do the right thing for the commonweal. It is just a short step to disliking corporate executives who finance politicians in exchange for access and favors.

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