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A system run by "special interests"

By Alan Maass | February 27, 2004 | Page 7

THE "SPECIAL interests" that dominate Washington politics had better watch out, says Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). "We're coming, you're going, and don't let the door hit you on the way out."

Did he really think he was going to get away with this crap? Kerry's supposed crusade against the lobbyists for Corporate America who infest the U.S. political system is new--dating from late last year, when he was looking for a way to jumpstart his drooping campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Kerry's more populist rhetoric carried him to victory in the early primaries. But a few weeks of extra media scrutiny has already exposed the contradiction between Kerry's claim to be an opponent of "special interests" and the reality of his two-decade-long career as a Washington politician, raking in huge corporate campaign contributions.

"Over the course of his senate career," writes Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, in the latest edition of The Buying of the President 2004, Kerry "has not been averse to taking campaign cash from the companies and firms with a direct interest in his work...Since 1995, he raised more than $30 million for his various campaigns, most of it from industries such as finance and telecommunications companies--which are overseen by the Senate committees he serves on--and the law and lobby firms that represent them."

Incredibly enough, some of the complaints about Kerry are coming from the Bush White House--which might as well be a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil and gas industry. "The issue is hypocrisy in saying you're going to take on the special interests, not who took the most special interest money," said Mark McKinnon, the chief media adviser for Bush's reelection campaign. "You don't hear the president in the Oval Office railing against the special interests."

So it's okay if Bush sells political influence for campaign cash, gives his biggest contributors direct access in shaping new laws and slashes desperately needed social programs to line the pockets of his rich pals with tax cut giveaways--as long as he's not a hypocrite about it.

The partisan bickering between Republicans and Democrats can obscure the fact that both mainstream parties are committed to upholding a political system that has always put the interests of the rich and powerful first. Washington politics is about money--for the obvious reason that it takes huge sums of money to get to Washington.

During the 2000 elections, for example, it cost on average $7.5 million to run a winning campaign for the U.S. Senate. The price tag on a seat in the House of Representatives was about $850,000. Obviously, that kind of money doesn't come from working people.

According to Federal Elections Commission statistics, business contributed more than 75 percent of the total donations to candidates and political parties during the 2000 election cycle. Unions--which are regularly denounced by Republicans for trying to control Washington--accounted for just over 5 percent.

"It's called buying access," said Matt Keller, of the campaign finance reform group Common Cause. "It doesn't matter if they're giving money to Trent Lott or Fred Flintstone. They're not giving for ideological reasons. They are giving for access reasons."

No one could seriously doubt that Corporate America has gotten its money's worth out of a Bush presidency--from the tax cut giveaways to the super-rich, to the war for oil and empire in Iraq, to all the gutted environmental regulations that no longer hamper the pursuit of profit. But the Democrats have an equally long record of serving up pro-corporate laws in return for campaign cash--and John Kerry is no exception among them.

For example, Kerry's biggest donor over his career is the Boston-based law firm Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo--which, not coincidentally, represents the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), an umbrella group for the telecommunications industry. Not coincidentally, Kerry's record in the senate closely matches the CTIA's legislative agenda. In just the last five years, Kerry sponsored at least two bills and cosponsored half a dozen others sought by the CTIA, including industry-backed plans for winning lucrative auctions of the broadcast airwaves.

So would reforms to the campaign finance system make a difference? Not likely. Recent attempts at reform have been easily derailed and watered down--not surprisingly, since this is a matter of the fox guarding the hen house.

Even the major laws passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon only caused corporate interests to invent new ways to buy influence. "The money is going to squirt out somewhere," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, after Congress passed a version of the McCain-Feingold reform law in 2002. "All the reform is doing is re-channeling where the flow is."

Tinkering with campaign finance legislation won't produce real change. The truth is that Washington system is permanently rigged in favor of the bosses--with both mainstream parties committed to upholding the status quo.

Millions of people plan to vote for John Kerry because they despise the way that the Bush administration has brazenly operated in the interests of corporations. But these people should ask themselves whether Kerry is really so very different--a child of privilege, a graduate of Yale University and the mysterious Skull and Bones secret society cult, a politician whose career has been sponsored by some of the richest business interests in the country.

This suits Corporate America just fine--a presidential election that gives the appearance of a choice, but which in reality offers two major candidates who can be relied on to serve their interests above all others. There are differences between Kerry and Bush, but they are not nearly as large as what they share--above all, the fact that both are beholden to a political system that puts the rich and powerful first.

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