Mother’s milk of politics: Mama plays both sides

Money, former Texas Senator Phil Gramm once said, is the "mother’s milk of politics."’

Gramm stole the line from California political legend Jesse Unruh. But it remains true enough and when discussing politicians lapping up all this milk we should remember that mom has two nipples: One for Republicans and the other for Democrats.

 The latest money-for-votes scandal to generate an outcry for campaign finance reform involves Republican hotdog Jack Abramoff, the good and great friend of such GOP luminaries as corrupt former House majority leader Tom DeLay and our honesty-challenged President, George W. Bush.

Republicans deserve whatever happens to them as the Abramoff scandal unfolds but the party of the elephant ain’t the only money-grubbers in town. When it comes to the buying of Congress, special interest groups belong to no one party and subscribe to no single political philosophy.

In the 2004 election, Republicans poured lots of time and effort into defeating Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. But Daschle collected most of the special interest political action (PAC) money — $3,344,580 compared with $1,183,602 for John Thune, the Republican challenger.  That’s normal in a House or Senate race. Daschle was the incumbent with a leadership position. PACs like to play in safe.

I ran the Political Programs Administration division of the giant National Association of Realtors trade association from 1987 until 1992 and controlled what was then the largest PAC in the country. We gave most of our money, some $5 million an election cycle, to Democrats primarily because they, at the time, controlled both the House and Senate and those contributions bought access for our lobbyists.

There was a time when business PACs gave most of their funds to Republicans while labor PACs backed Democrats.  But Rep. Tony Coelho of California took over chairmanship of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1980s and vowed to bring more business money into his party’s campaign coffers.

And that he did. First he convinced his Democratic colleagues in Congress that they could vote for just enough pro-business issues to raise their favorable ratings with industry while not alienating their labor constituency, then he set about browbeating PACs into handing over the money.

Coelho threatened to bar business lobbyists from Democratic leadership offices is their PACs didn’t contribute more, kept a "friends and enemies" list handy when he met with PAC managers. He threatened, cajoled, promised and lied to get money.

"Coelho is the father of the vast and ethics-flouting Democratic money machine that has, from time to time, landed Bill Clinton and his vice president in hot water," wrote Jay Nordlinger in The National Review on June 13, 1999. :"As boss of his party’s Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1980s, Coelho set a new standard in fundraising and strongarming, becoming the very model of a political shakedown artist."

Coelho resigned from Congress in the midst of a financial scandal in 1989 and headed for Wall Street where he earned a bundle as a high-risk trader until Al Gore hired him to run his campaign for President in 1999. A year later he came under investigation by the State Department for playing fast and loose with ethics rules while raising money for the US Pavilion at the 1998 World Expo.

In 1995, new Republican Speaker of the House tapped Texas Rep. Tom DeLay with the job of getting more PAC money into Republican campaigns.  He told DeLay to "use the Toney Coelho model" in threatening and browbeating PACs.

"You learn by studying your enemies," Gingrich said.

They learned. In 2004, Republicans in the House raised $130,665,030 – more than $27 million more than the $103,306,154 collected by Democrats.  But both parties pulled in more than $100 million.  In the Senate, Republicans collected $37,444,234 from PACs compared to $30,770,085 for Democrats.

PAC managers openly admit they give more to Republicans now because they control Congress. If Democrats controlled they would get most of the money.

And while money in politics is a bipartisan problem, so is opposition to reduce the role of special interest groups. During the debate on the McCain-Feingold law limiting use of outside money for issue ads on the final days of a campaign, opposition came from an odd coalition of liberal groups, including the AFL-CIO and the American Civil Liberties Union, and conservative groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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