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Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process.

Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process. Brooks Jackson. Knopf, $18.95. A disclaimer: I am a long-time admirer of Brooks Jackson and, in my own writing, drew heavily from his work as an investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal. So I approached Jackson's book with high expectations. He has not disappointed me.

Jackson was granted an exceptional insider's view by a remarkable agreement he reached with California's Rep. Tony Coelho, then chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the DCCC. For reasons of his own, the ambitious Coelho permitted Jackson to sit in on all the committee's staff meetings and, even more extraordinary, to read all of the staff reports to Coelho. In addition, Coelho spent hours with Jackson, confiding to him and his tape recorder.

Jackson, usually a hard-bitten skeptic, betrays his admiration-even while recounting Coelho's questionable money-raising tactics and painting him as morally schizoid. He repeatedly calls Coelho a "would-be priest," referring to the lawmaker's early desire to enter the priesthood, an ambition thwarted by a teen-age car accident and the Catholic church's inscrutable rule barring men subject to epileptic seizures from the priesthood.

Yet as a young congressional aide in 1970, this "would-be priest" failed to report to federal prosecutors what Jackson terms a $500 "bribe attempt" by a lobbyist, because "he didn't want to stir a scandal." (Coelho did, however, return the $500.) Years later, as a congressman, the "would-be priest" also readily accepted a free ride in Philip Morris's jet aircraft, and finagled campaign contributions from business interests, occasionally in the most heavy-handed manner. In 1984, Coelho dispatched a letter to the Home Builders' chief lobbyist, soliciting campaign funds for New Jersey Rep. Joseph Minish, and reminded the lobbyist that Minish mus the fourth highest member of the House Banking Committee, which handles subsidies worth billions to the home builders. Coelho's letter said that the hesitation of the builders' political action committee in making the $5,000 maximum allowable contribution to Minish "causes us to be concerned that the [good relationship the homebuilders have had with House Democrats] will be damaged.,, To underline its authority Coelho had the letter signed by the chairman of the banking committee, by Jim Wright, then Majority Leader, and, most important, by the Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill.

The two Tony Coelhos reveal themselves most sharply in the contrast between his rhetoric and his actions about his goals for himself and the Democratic party. On page 19, Coelho grandly declares, "Unless you believe that the Democratic party can really help people change their lives and provide some hope, you don't understand. . .my drive [or] why I want to change things." Yet succeeding pages teem with tales about the single-minded intensity with which Coelho drove his party toward protectionist policies (wholly against its historic traditions) and into the arms of Big Business and rich, privileged givers. Exhibit A: Coelhds invention of the "Speaker's Club," boasting the enticements of &"round of golf with the Speaker" or cocktails with the Democratic members of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which writes the tax laws. Price of admission to Coelho's club: $5,000 a year-hardly the kind of ticket the Average Voter can afford. Sic transit the party of Jefferson and Jackson.

The greater importance of Brooks Jackson's book lies in its dramatic exposition of Big Money's noxious impact on politics. In 1986, PACs gave 88 percent of their money to incumbents, with the result that they outspent challengers three to one. As Jackson has observed, that creates congressmen-for-life and, because the PACs shun challengers, protects all but the most assailable members of Congress from meaningful challenge. And even they have a better than average chance of surviving. Consider, for example, the last available pre-election figures on the 1988 money raised from PACs by six of the theoretically most vulnerable representatives, compared with the fundraising records of their 1988 opponents, The six are Ferdinand St. Germain of Rhode Island, as to whom a Justice Department probe found "substantial evidence of serious and sustained misconduct"; Democratic Reps. Bill Chappell of Florida and Roy Dyson of Maryland, both suspected of being implicated in the Pentagon procurement scandals; Pennsylvania Democrat Austin Murphy, who was reprimanded by the House in late 1987 for a series of ethics violations; Tennessee Democrat Marilyn Lloyd, who accepted speaking fees from 15 defense contractors, even though she is a member of the House Armed Services Committee; and California's Jim Bates, a Democrat, accused by members of his staff of sexual harassment.

Here's what each got from PACs: St. Germain raised $318,000 to his opponent's $11,000; Dyson had $364,000 to $0 for his challenger; Chappell had $334,000 vs. $25; Bates, $164,000 to $9,000; Lloyd, $286,000 to $28,000; and Murphy raised $101,000 to less than $5,000 raised by his opponent.

Four of the six retained their seats. Only St. Germain and Chappell were defeated, the laner by a margin so narrow that the final results were uncertain until fully three weeks after the election.

Not surprisingly, then, representatives get 60, 70 percent-or more-of their campaign funds from outside, special-interest political action committees, rather than from their own constituents. Rep. Dyson, for example, got 68 percent of his 1986 campaign money from outside PACs. Jackson observes that "increasingly House members (act] as ombudsmen not only for their constituents, but also for their donors," who form a "second constituency" not envisioned by the drafters of the Constitution. While voters continue to retain the ultimate power to defeat a candidate, Jackson says, reaching those voters requires ever-larger sums. So "donors gained importance at the expense of the electorate. This amounted to a de facto amendment to the Constitution."

One of Jackson's most important observations-all too rarely noted in the press-is that Big Money contributors can, and often do, buy something far more precious than lawmakers' votes: their intercession with a federal regulatory or administrative agency with whom a donor is experiencing trouble, At Tony Coelho's insistence, Jim Wright, then Majority Leader, came to the active aid of Thomas Gaubert, a Dallas multimillionaire and major player in the savings and loan industry and also, not coincidentally, a most generous contributor to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Gaubert, who had parlayed $1 million into control of a multi-billion-dollar S&L empire, was under constant investigation by the Home Loan Bank Board and, once, by a federal grand jury. At one point, Wright summoned Bank Board Chairman Edwin Gray to his office and said his friends were accusing Bank Board investigators of "Gestapo tactics," and to show he meant business, blocked a bill Gray was seeking to infuse $15 billion into the ailing S&L industry. Under such pressure, Gray acceded to an independent inquiry, which found Gaubert's principal claim groundless, but the probe did afford Gauben time to win back temporary control of his principal S&L-until he found himself the subject of another criminal investigation by the FBI and the Justice Department.

If there is a significant flaw in Jackson's book, it lies in the tide. The phrase"honest graft," comes from George Washington Plunkitt, a turn-of-the-century Tammany Hall figure whose saity, cynical realpolitik epigraphs begin every chapter. Those epigraphs give the book an "Oh, well, what the hell; that's theway things work" tone that I find unfortunate, and probably unfair to Jackson, who has thought a great deal about, and cares deeply for, improving "the way things work." -Philip M. Stem
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Author:Stern, Philip M.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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