The charter of a big bank was up for renewal. A prominent US
senator wrote to the bank's president to say he was under pressure
to oppose the recharter, and it would be a good time for the bank
to "refresh" his usual retainers.
It wasn't a subtle letter. Nor was this apparent quid pro quo
(cash for a vote) condemned by Daniel Webster's Senate colleagues
after his letter was exposed in 1833.
Today, such overt vote-buying is illegal. But politicians still
ask corporations and organizations for money, so they can afford
high-powered campaigns to win or keep their seats. And many donors
still expect something in return for their contribution.
In the asking - and the giving - are a thousand shades of gray.
But the huge sums of money trading hands in political contests have
made politicians more vulnerable than ever to the appearance of
corruption - if not actual bribery.
It's a development that many political observers say has soured
the public - possibly even depressing voter turnout. Now, as the
Senate takes up campaign-finance reform this week, the question is
whether lawmakers will alter a campaign-finance system that they
themselves thrive under.
"It's very rare that you see the kind of quid pro quo that
constitutes bribery," says Charles Kolb, president of the Committee
for Economic Development (CED), the first major business
organization to recommend abolishing soft money. "The system is
much more subtle than that. But even with the subtlety, the system
doesn't look good."
Tracing the loophole
For most of the 20th century, corporate money was ruled out of
federal elections. Union contributions have been banned since 1946.
In 1968, both houses of Congress - prompted by Watergate and
influence-peddling scandals - began to define standards of ethics
for lawmakers and a system of peer review to enforce them.
But a 1979 revision of the campaign-finance law opened a loophole
in the system that would later flood national campaigns with
unregulated "soft" money, especially in the past decade. Critics
say this new cash flow leaves Congress open to the charge that
special interests are "buying" legislation - or that lawmakers are
extorting big contributions.
"Every single special-interest group in America ... that through
the use of money obtains access and influence in the legislative
process is scared to death about this legislation because it
diminishes their influence and power," said Sen. John McCain (R) of
Arizona, cosponsor with Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin of a
bill to abolish soft money.
Soft-money contributions soared in the last election cycle -
jumping from $22 million in 1984 to more than $480 million last