The Country Club: How an Elite Group of Corporations, Unions and Super-Rich Individuals Is Financing the Political Parties, Shaping the Political Agenda and Reaping Great Rewards with Huge Soft Money Contributions

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How an elite group of corporations, unions and super-rich individuals is financing the political parties, shaping the political agenda and reaping great rewards with huge soft money contributions.

Swanee Hunt is a member. So are Daniel Abraham, the Slim*Fast man, and Darrell Issa, whose scary voice warns unwitting passersby that they've committed a "perimeter violation" of cars outfitted with the Viper alarm system. Chiquita banana man Carl Lindner is a charter member, as is soybean magnate Dwayne Andreas. There's even a former U.S. citizen on the roster, an 84-year-old tuna king who went to England to avoid the IRS, along with a couple of Cuban-exile brothers who own and run a huge chunk of southern Florida but have never become U.S. citizens. Why bother voting when you can simply buy your way into the political system?

In a roundabout way, Mickey Mouse is also a member, as is Joe Camel. Steven "E.T." Spielberg and Barbra "Like Butter" Streisand add a touch of glitter and glamour to the ranks, but most of the members are all business. Big business, small business, bigger-than-many-countries businesses. Throw in some labor bosses, an the tobacco titans, a couple of former soap salesmen, lots of money mavens, plenty of oil tycoons, land and liquor types, some high-powered media moguls, the telephone people, the drug lords, a few gamblers, health providers and a layer of lawyers, and the member profile of the national country club begins to come into focus.

The one thing all members of the country club have in common is a history of signing very large checks made payable to the Republican and Democratic parties. They also share a remarkably uncommon level of access to and influence with the country's top elected officials, and have been known to frequent White House dinners and win special favors from practically every outpost of the federal government. Several of them, including oil heiress Hunt, now go by the tide "ambassador" or "Cabinet secretary."

The term "country club" is not a new one in political discourse. Republicans have long been referred to as the country club set, and more recent references to country club Republicans have sought to distinguish the blue-blooded establishment typess from Pat Buchanan's blue-collared rabble-rousers. But thanks to the influence of increasingly huge and widely used unregulated soft money" contributions to the political parties, a new country club has taken root: a club of wealthy, high-powered donors who help set the political agenda, impact the outcomes and, in many ways, run the country.

From January 1991, when federal election law first required the disclosure of their contributions, through 1995, country club members poured more than $229 million into the Republican and Democratic parties; more than half of that five-year total was contributed in the past two years alone. And the cumulative total of soft money contributions from 1988 is at least $292 million. But donors have reaped billions of dollars' worth of government subsidies, business deals, tax provisions and regulatory reforms.

The members of this ever-growing group of big political donors come from virtually every segment of the nation's economy: Their products fill our pantries, medicine cabinets and gas tanks; they hold and invest our money. They control the health care system, rule Wall Street, dominate the entertainment industry, run the television and cable networks and virtually all the long-distance companies, operate the gambling casinos, clog the courts, do our accounting, build our cars, fly our airlines, provide us with everything from greeting cards to liquor, own the stores where we shop, the restaurants where we dine and the professional sports teams we cheer on. They often pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink. They even hire us and lay us off.

And they are just as ubiquitous in the political system. Whether the issue is tobacco regulation, trade, the minimum wage, energy policy, education, agriculture subsidies, telecommunications law, taxes, environmental controls, health care reform, antitrust rules, drug approval, legal reform or workplace safety, club members make their voices heard. …