Those who have the gold make
By Jim Wright
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
It's evident that the only people with effective representation in Congress these days are favor-seekers whose large contributions finance campaigns for the pusillanimous crowd that now controls Congress and is in turn controlled by the contributors.
They're the only ones, it seems, who get even rudimentary consideration, and they get it tripled and overflowing.
I never thought I'd say this. For 50 years I've defended Congress as the branch of government closest to the people -- the natural defender and protector of ordinary people's rights.
Well, that was then. Times have changed. Campaigns are staggeringly, astronomically expensive today. All but a handful of senators and representatives depend desperately for their re-election chances upon large contributors.
To whose opinions will they harken when in doubt?
If you think legislators are not beholden to their big campaign funders, consider this: In 98 percent of the contested congressional elections of 2002, the winner was the one who spent the most money.
People don't turn out any more for candidate speakings. They watch television. Candidates don't discuss issues, beyond quickie market-tested slogans.
In this atmosphere, the candidate who can buy the greater market share of media time will win -- too often through negative attack ads against the opponent.
Voters say they don't like negative campaigns, but the sorry fact is that they work. If the hapless target of the slander is out of dough, there's no opportunity to answer. That candidate, consequently, loses -- for want of cash.
See why incumbents and challengers court the known contributors? They're like panting teen-agers begging autographs from entertainment idols. There's no dignity and mighty little self-respect in this shabby process.
A prospective candidate's viability is measured, more and more, by how much money that person can raise. That's the sine qua non.
Not brains, not ability, not dedication. Money!
Members of Congress privately confess to spending 30 percent of their time every day on the telephone pandering for contributions.
Both parties maintain separate year-round headquarters in buildings on Capitol Hill. Members of each party are encouraged to spend several hours there telephoning daily, away from their offices, constituent mail and public duties.
This is, increasingly, the humiliating price of re-election.
So you wonder why there's not enough public money any more for first-class public schools throughout America? For enough qualified teachers to keep classroom numbers manageable?
In spite of your president's solemn pledge to "leave no child behind," millions are being left behind this year for want of adequate school funds. Yet there's enough to advocate doing away with the inheritance tax to benefit the 1 percent of affluent Americans to whom it applies.
There isn't enough money, or a sufficient sense of urgency in Congress, to do anything meaningful for affordable health care. Millions have to choose daily between buying food or their evermore-costly prescription drugs.
But there's enough, apparently, to help corporations and big investors dodge taxes on their dividend and investment income.
Not enough to keep some 600,000 Texas children this year from losing their health insurance, preschool classes, school lunches. Enough for another layer on top of President Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cuts of 2001, mostly for America's top 20 percent?
Bush insists it's a great way to -- get this -- create jobs! Then why, two years after Congress gave him the biggest (and most inequitable) tax cut in history, does America have 2.1 million fewer jobs than we had then?
Time was when laws were written to protect the average citizen -- anti-monopoly controls, securities regulations, safety and environmental precautions.
Lawmakers, ever more subservient to big contributors, have let most of those laws lapse. Regulative agencies go underfunded, and administrators simply ignore the laws that remain.
Why? Fairly plain, isn't it? Schoolchildren and their young parents, little kids who need dental checkups, old people dependent on Social Security, low-wage workers and the unemployed -- these folks don't routinely make big campaign contributions.
Cynical. Sad. But true.
If we really care about democracy, we'd better demand a much more profound overhaul of campaign finance laws than McCain-Feingold.
And plain people had better start learning, and remembering, who their friends are.
Jim Wright is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. PO Box 1413 Fort Worth, TX 76101