Money, Money, Money

Article excerpt

It really is extraordinary. Bechtel is awarded the biggest reconstruction contract in Iraq without having to compete for it. Halliburton, winner of another no-bid contract, overcharges the government by millions of dollars after only months of service. A Medicare bill passes that prohibits the federal government from negotiating with drug companies for any price but what drug companies set. Congress puts a provision into the Homeland Security Act immunizing Eli Lilly from any lawsuits related to vaccines it produces. Then, of course, there's the tax bill, which transfers such great and unprecedented wealth to the already greatly wealthy.

To Republicans, "privatization" no longer means cost-cutting efficiency. These days, the federal government has been diminished as a public entity, re-emerging instead as a wholly owned subsidiary of various private concerns. Public accountability in every area has eroded, as though information about government were a kind of trade secret. Whether you're from a Democratic district or from France, if you don't "contribute" or "play the game" you will suffer what is sarcastically called "payback," i.e., no recognition of civic partnership, no goodies for you. Loyalty to the directors of this federal-system-as-private-company earns one legislative pork, which is passed out as recklessly by this Administration as bonuses to CEOs at Enron. Government programs reward major political donors as though they were stockholding investors rather than citizens in a representative democracy with no greater or lesser stake than any other citizen.

In 1976 the Supreme Court issued its controversial opinion in the case of Buckley v. Valeo, qualifying the expenditure of money as a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. The door opened by that decision has changed the nature of campaign finance, many would say for the worse. If money is a form of "free speech," goes the argument, then rich people end up inherently and always more persuasive than the poor. The McCain-Feingold debate has been the most visible attempt to deal with this issue; and the Supreme Court's recent upholding of the ban on soft money in the McConnell v. F.E.C. case is an important acknowledgment of the degree to which unbridled political payment can also corrupt. Even so, the majority in McConnell seemed resigned to their inability to wholly stem the excesses, observing, "Money, like water, will always find an outlet."

Recently, Public Campaign, the Fannie Lou Hamer Project and the William C. Velasquez Institute have combined forces to issue a report titled "Color of Money 2003." This study, which can be read in its entirety online at www.colorofmoney.org, is a national effort to focus attention on the relationship between political contributions and access to power and services. It analyzes our current campaign-finance system as a kind of structural barrier to political equality. It looks at the demographic patterns of where most campaign contributions come from. California, in particular Beverly Hills, tops the list. Then New York, in particular the Upper East Side of Manhattan. …