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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Campaign Contributions

Inflation or no inflation, Congress remains the best “buy” in the country. The business lobbies that ply Capitol Hill with their campaign money and fringe benefits know that such lucre is receiving far more value than when Will Rogers uttered his pithy description of the national legislature nearly 50 years ago.

Some political observers believe the process of buying or renting senators and representatives is more subtle than in the days of Sen. Boies Penrose, R-Pa., who earlier this century flaunted before a business audience these memorable words: “I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under…which you make money;…and out of your profits you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money.”

For many, the attitudes have not changed today except the price is higher and the rewards greater. Former congressman Clark McGregor thinks it’s “hogwash” to say that it is wrong for corporations to influence Congress with campaign money. McGregor, now a vice president of United Technologies Corp., told the Minneapolis Tribune recently that “contributions given with no purpose are ridiculous and contrary to our system.” He added that corporation contributions in the form of Political Action Committees (PACs) are “a vigorous exercise of First Amendment rights.”

Using dollars to influence votes can be interpreted in less constitutional ways. David Brinkley once called them bribes. Presently, a growing list of industries are calling in their tips, after filling their selected legislators’ campaign finance coffers, to stop the law enforcement processes against them of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Not persuaded they can prevail on the merits at the agency or court level, these corporate groups are bent on doing it politically with grease.

Patrick Riordan of the Knight-Ridder newspapers has reported that these anti-FTC industries contributed more than $5 million in 1978 to members of Congress. He lists them: the funeral directors, citrus fruit and milk cooperatives, insurance companies, used-car firms, cereal manufacturers, sugar refiners, the National Association of Broadcasters and American Cyanamid.

The insurance industry wants Congress to prohibit the FTC from even studying it. Insurance money has flowed into the campaign account of Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., who is leading the wreck-the-FTC crew in the Senate. He voted the way the insurance lobby desired.

Last November, Congress passed a two-year extension of high price supports for dairy products which President Carter promptly signed into law. This move will cost consumers at least $400 million a year in higher milk prices. There is nothing new about this heist. It has been going on for years with the dairy lobby, in return, parceling out about $1 million annually to more than 300 Democrats and Republicans.

There are members of Congress who recognize this corruption of the democratic process and want some form of public financing of campaigns to be established. But even partial public financing proposals have gone nowhere on Capitol Hill. Corporate PACs are fluorishing and increasing. They soonwill reach 2,000 in number. In addition to what contributions are reported, the transfer of cash in envelopes still is a prevailing practice. Some legislators are candid enough to admit this–privately.

The voters need to buy back their Congress. It would be their best and cheapest investment. For less than the cost of one-seventh of just one Trident submarine, a taxpayer fund, or a check-off on the Form 1040, would fund congressional campaigns under fair procedures for challengers and incumbents and with a prescribed amount of free time for them on radio and TV during a campaign.

Influence peddling with campaign money bags is so lucrative now that members of Congress are quitting to share in the profits. Former Rep. Joseph Karth is making three times a congressional salary as a lobbyist for aerospace, electronic and military arms manufacturers. He is well received by his former colleagues. Rep. William S. Moorhead, D-Pa., just announced his retirement at age 56, in part for financial reasons. “If I leave now I’m marketable for other employment,” he said. A washington-based organization called “Former Members of Congress” (121 Second St. N.E.) is swelling in membership.

The Jeffersonian view of representative government was that decisions made on the basis of votes and merits would counteract the excesses of the “monied interests.” Can we make the wisdom of that ideal into a presidential campaign issue this year?