The appearance of corruption

Posted: Jan 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Meet Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the powerful Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. You might find him zipping in and out of Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. For the last 35 years, Stevens has been in the United States Senate fleecing the taxpayers of this fair land for his own benefit--oh, and for the benefit of some folks in Alaska, too.

But the Ted Stevens story is less about Ted Stevens than it is about the cesspool our Congress has become. Incumbents are entrenched like never before--over 98 percent reelection rates cycle after cycle. Rarely are incumbents even seriously challenged. No term limits. No process to recall them.

And the system pays awesome rewards. It is not hard to see how it works, what it takes to stay in office and to make yourself a bundle of dough in the process.

A recent Los Angeles Times article details how Senator Stevens has invested in sweetheart deals, which made him a millionaire, while he in turn steered hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to these same partners. One partner told the Times, "Clearly, a phone call from Senator Stevens does not hurt. But there was no quid pro quo, plain and simple."

Welcome to Washington folks.

In several investments, Stevens was not required to take the same risk all the other investors faced. "I am a passive investor," Stevens argues in his defense. "I am not now nor have I been involved in buying and selling properties, negotiating leases or making management decisions." In other words, the Senator doesn?t even have to do any work to become a millionaire!

Yet, what Stevens brings to the table is the ability to bestow enormous favors on his business partners. Favors paid for by you and me--the American taxpayers. As powerful head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Stevens sits on top of $800 billion in federal discretionary spending.

"If I want to invest at home, with the things I've done in 35 years, I would have a conflict with anything..." the Senator recently explained. "Now whether that conflict is sufficient to become a violation of ethics rules is another matter."

The Los Angeles Times also reported on the involvement of the Senator?s wife and brother-in-law in various business relationships with a number of Alaska companies showered by the Senator with our tax dollars. And Stevens?s son, Ben, is a lobbyist. "It seems every major interest in Alaska has found a reason to hire the son of the powerful senator who misses few opportunities to help them," the Times reported last June.

Of course, Stevens is far from alone in making favorable policy for interests that employ relatives. The Los Angeles Times called it "an increasingly widespread pattern in Washington: Senior senators doing favors for special interests that pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying and consulting fees to the senators? children, spouses and other relatives." The Times? list includes Senators Daschle, Lott, Boxer, Breaux and Hatch and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

There are more ways to bribe politicians and for politicians to shake down interests, Horatio, than dreamt of in your campaign finance laws.

"I have not done my job just to make money for myself or Catherine, or for any of our family," Stevens responded.

No. Of course not, Mr. Senator. It wasn?t just for your enrichment. Much as a bank robber who divides the money with his fellow crooks certainly cannot be accused by responsible commentators of committing the crime for purely selfish reasons.

Yet, is Stevens? whole parade of pork and sundry conflicts of interest (so richly imbued with the appearance of corruption) really even newsworthy? I?ve reported on dozens of similar actions by other congressmen in my Common Sense e-letter, available free to all freedom-loving Americans. In fact, it is difficult to keep up with all the sleaze in Congress.

After the defeat of the pork-laden energy bill, Robert Novak wrote: "More now than at any time since I started covering Capitol Hill in 1957, Congress is a giant, bipartisan, bicameral marketplace."

How did we get here? The Ted Stevens story is illustrative of the systemic problems. Stevens has spent the last 35 years in the U.S. Senate, but has never won an election to the U.S. Senate except as an incumbent. Twice he ran for the office and was defeated. Then, in 1968, Stevens was appointed to the Senate and has stayed there ever since. He has fared quite well as an incumbent, with the power of the federal Leviathan behind him.

In 2002, his campaign spent $2.8 million against an opponent who spent $893 and some-odd cents. In 1996, he had no major party opposition at all, but spent $2.7 million to run for reelection. In 1990, his challenger spent $445 to Stevens? $1.6 million. At least in 1984, he faced stiffer financial competition--only outspending his opponent by a little more than 14 to 1.

But don?t get the idea that Stevens? fundraising prowess has put him in power. Clearly, it is the reverse, that power has put money in his campaign account. And denied money to his opponents.

Stevens?s toughest challenge may have came in 1996 in the Republican primary. The challenger was a wealthy and well-respected Anchorage banker named David Cuddy. Cuddy, a conservative reformer, wanted to end the reign of pork.

In their book, Against Long Odds, James Merriner and Thomas Senter explain the fundraising difficulties faced by Cuddy. They write: "Federal contribution limits foist on challengers a task equivalent to filling a bathtub with a $1,000 teaspoon. Cuddy and his supporters made the rounds of Alaskan CEOs?-the challenger?s own milieu?-only to be told that they would love to help out, but they could not risk Stevens seeing their name on Cuddy?s list of contributors for fear of reprisal. Did those who wrote the post-Watergate ?reform? laws foresee this?"

Anonymity was once a hallmark of American politics--from the Federalist Papers to the secret ballot. It is not always a bad thing. If enough voters demand to know contribution data, those candidates seeking their votes will volunteer the information. But for incumbents in Congress to pass a law forcing the disclosure of those who contribute to their opponents violates the First Amendment to our Constitution. (Forgive me for mentioning that old relic again.)

Even beyond fundraising, the incumbent has every advantage. The Alaska Supreme Court voided the Republican Party's planned closed primary in favor of an open primary and likely Democrats crossing over for the more liberal Stevens. Meanwhile, Cuddy?s campaign lost consultant after consultant to threats of retaliation on future Republican Party jobs.

Cuddy also discovered the power incumbents have over the media. He was scheduled to be on a radio show hosted by a supporter, Fritz Pettyjohn. But after a complaint was filed with the Federal Communication Commission in Washington, D.C. the appearance was canceled.

"I was told by management that there had been some complaint lodged against the station by someone in the Stevens camp that I was going beyond the bounds of fair political commentary, and when our license came up it could be a problem for them," Pettyjohn said. "And so they instructed me to just back off and stay away from it or else they?d have to take me off the air. Anytime you mention the word ?license? around one of these stations, they just freak."

The biggest campaign contribution to Stevens came from you and me--the taxpayers. The state receives $611 per capita in federal pork--that is 70 percent above the national average. Of course, every Alaskan isn?t cut a check by the federal treasury for an equal $611. Friends of Ted get so much that it adds up to $611 for every Alaskan. Many people thus desire to be Friends of Ted.

In the end, Stevens soundly defeated Cuddy, 59 to 27 percent, though the margin was much closer than usual for Stevens.

So, there you have it: A Congress run by career politicians who wield the power of the federal government to thwart competition so they can enrich themselves and their special-interest cronies. If this doesn?t appear to be corruption, I don?t know what does.

Our make-it-up-as-we-go Supreme Court justices recently decided it was so earth-shatteringly important to battle the perception that our Congress is full of crooks, that Congress should be able to stomp all over the First Amendment through the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. So, what does the McCain-Feingold law say about Senator Stevens and his wheeling and dealing? Well, nothing. The law doesn?t bother Senators Stevens in the slightest.

But McCain-Feingold does forbid groups from telling the people of Alaska about this pattern of self-dealing in any advertisement that dares to mention the powerful Senator?s name or show his likeness within 60 days of the election. That?s the McCain-Feingold method of removing the appearance of corruption: enforced silence.

What then do we do?

We must stop the monopolization of our government by career politicians bent on their own power and prestige. The answer is term limits.