Capitol Letter: Buying Influence

Anyone who thinks that the debate over campaign-finance reform, which will return to the Senate floor next week, is a piece of policy esoterica with little relevance to their lives ought to take a look at "Buying Influence, Selling Death," a new study of tobacco-industry money and its pernicious influence on our politics.

The report, cocommissioned by Common Cause and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, documents how the torrents of money flowing from corporate giants like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds have driven the debate on cigarette smoking. From 1995 through the November 2000 election, tobacco interests doled out more than $32 million to state and federal candidates and parties. That includes $17.4 million in "soft money"-unregulated cash from labor unions,corporations and individuals that is supposed to be for political parties but has an enormous impact on candidates and their races. It also reflects the $7.4 million in donations from industry political-action committees-money raised from individuals in tobacco companies that can go directly to candidates. Soft money will be at the center of the battle in the Senate, when it takes up the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill. The measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, would ban such contributions.

The report's analysis of recent tobacco votes in Congress suggests a strong correlation between the amount of tobacco money lawmakers have in their coffers and where they come down on the public health consequences of cigarette smoking.

One familiar argument from defenders of the status quo is that cash doesn't buy votes, only access to elected officials and an opportunity for those with the dough to make their case. But the report's analysis of recent tobacco votes in Congress suggests a strong correlation between the amount of tobacco money lawmakers have in their coffers and where they come down on the public health consequences of cigarette smoking. "Tobacco is the classic case, the example of what in fact this money buys," says Common Cause president Scott Harshbarger.

The industry's biggest victory came in June 1998 when major antitobacco legislation died in a Senate filibuster. The bill, also sponsored by McCain, would have, among other things, granted the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco, committed the industry to targeted reductions in teen smoking and collected more than $500 billion from cigarette manufacturers over 25 years through a $1.10-per-pack tax increase. According to the study, the 42 senators who voted to continue the filibuster (it takes a two-thirds majority of senators present to close off debate) received, on average, four times as much money from the industry in the two years before their last election as the 57 who moved to end the filibuster ($17,902 compared to $4,810).

Tobacco-state legislators aren't the only lawmakers who get big chunks of industry largesse, according to "Buying Influence." Big tobacco is also a heavy contributor to the so-called "Leadership PACs," political action committees established by senior members of Congress to contribute money to other candidates. Rep. John Boehner comes from Ohio-hardly the tobacco belt. But he's also an influential member of the House Republican caucus and currently chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee. His PAC, the Freedom Project, has collected more than $120,000 from tobacco interests during the past five years. House majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas has taken in more than $94,000 for his Americans for a Republican Majority over the same period.

The report catalogs numerous other avenues of political influence on which tobacco money travels: $250,000 from Philip Morris for the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia; a "Blue Dog Bash" for conservative Democrats at the party's Los Angeles convention; $500,000 to the Democratic Leadership Council and smaller sums to university academic centers named for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

Antismoking activists say the next major battlefield may be the Justice Department, which has been pursuing a lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers for deceptive advertising and marketing practices under federal racketeering statutes. If the government wins, it could collect billions and force major changes in the way the industry does business. They are watching new attorney general John Ashcroft closely for signs that he is backing off. There is also new legislation pending that once again attempts to grant the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products. Since the McCain bill was defeated in 1998, according to "Buying Influence," more than a million Americans have died from smoking-related diseases like lung cancer, and more than 3 million minors have become new regular smokers.

THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE?

The Senate Judiciary Committee room in the Dirksen Office Building has often been packed for big Washington dramas, like Ashcroft's recent confirmation hearings. It was standing-room-only again one morning earlier this week, but not for business as usual. Filling the hushed chamber were several hundred members of the American Legion, in town for their 41st Washington Conference, supporting an emotional plea for a constitutional amendment that would ban desecration of the American flag. Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, a California Republican and heavily decorated Navy pilot in the Vietnam War, wept as he told the story of a fellow pilot who was severely beaten as a POW for sewing an American flag in his cell. "It's not a political issue," said Cunningham, who had to stop several times before he could finish.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, and Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who lost both legs and an arm to a grenade in Vietnam, joined Cunningham in sponsoring the one-sentence amendment, which reads simply: "Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag-burning was protected speech under the First Amendment. Since then Hatch and others have made several attempts to bypass the court by amending the Constitution. The House approved an amendment in 1999, and the Senate came close last year, falling four votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage (three quarters of the state legislatures must also approve). As the Legionnaires prepared to fan out across Capitol Hill to lobby for the measure, Hatch said he is still probably "a couple of votes short," but maintained that the amendment has its best chance ever for approval.

Many Republicans like Hatch invoke the First Amendment when they fight against campaign-finance reform, arguing that limitations on spending for political advertising would violate free-speech guarantees. But Hatch says that banning flag desecration is a different matter, simply an attempt to "heed the will of the people." Even Cleland, who supports McCain-Feingold, says that while he is a strong supporter of free speech, "an amendment to protect the flag is an acceptable, very specific limitation in order to protect the most sacred of American symbols."

Not every Vietnam veteran agrees with Cunningham and Cleland. One prominent vet, Secretary of State Colin Powell, said last year that freedom of expression "applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous. I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will be flying proudly long after they have slunk away."

OINK, OINK

One thing Republicans and Democrats can always get together on is pork-the billions of dollars in pet projects and sops to special interests that are often slipped through the back door of the budget process. The "2001 Congressional Pig Book," an annual compilation of questionable spending published this week by Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), proves once again that as far as members of Congress are concerned, fiscal responsibility begins at the border of someone else's district or state. Those who pigged out the most were in direct control of the purse strings as members of various Appropriations subcommittees.

Among those singled out for special mention this year: Sen. Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican, who landed $1.5 million to help refurbish Birmingham's Vulcan Monument (that's the Roman god of fire and metalworking, not Mr. Spock) originally built to represent Alabama at the 1904 St. Louis Worlds Fair.

Sen. Fritz Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat, who got $3 million for research on the Charleston Bump, an off-shore area that attracts large numbers of fish. Hollings also snared $300,000 for South Carolina's Rice Museum, which chronicles the history of rice cultivation on coastal plantations.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican of Pennsylvania, who secured $1 million for the National Flag Foundation in Pittsburgh, an organization with a mission "to inspire people everywhere, but especially young people, to be more dedicated, responsible citizens and have a greater respect for the flag." (Maybe a constitutional amendment would be cheaper).

CAGW says the biggest winner in the pork competition, was, not surprisingly, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who steered $480 million to his state, including what the "Pig Book" calls the most expensive project per capita in the country: $400,000 for a parking lot and pedestrian safety improvements in Talkeetna, population 300. That's $1,100 per person.

Stevens' office would not return a phone call asking for comment. But the Republican chairman has not taken kindly in the past to the CAGW's reports. "He called us psychopaths and idiots a few years ago," says president Thomas Schatz. "We're still trying to figure out how you can be both at the same time."