They won't stop buying politicians

Hammer-and-sickle flags flying over the White House. Governments deciding who should live or die. "Socialised medicine". The Kremlin dictating orders to Washington. Blue UN helicopters lining up in formation to take the US by surprise. A nightmarish "welfare state", turning the rugged men and women of America into hopeless wimps, just like those effete Europeans.

Remember John McCain? He sprang to fame last year when many Republicans started to see him, too late, as an alternative presidential candidate to Boy George. But by that time all the big money was behind Dubbya, and his candidature was a fait accompli. McCain, driven partly by his loathing for Boy George, has continued to make political campaign finance reform his hobby-horse - and last Monday the McCain-Feingold (the latter being a Democratic senator from Wisconsin) bill to reform campaign finance finally went before the Senate.

By the standards of any other western democracy, what they propose is modest indeed. But I was intrigued to see what kind of spin the corporate lobbyists would use to make sure that it does not become law.

By that evening, it was already clear: the very idea of campaign finance reform is un-American, like gun control. It would restrict freedom. Any attempt to regulate the slush money that funded 1.2 million separate radio and television political ads last year would be a blow against free speech, and thus an infringement of the First Amendment to the Constitution. We could be sure, therefore, that should America embark on the slippery slope McCain and Feingold propose, those hammer-and-sickle flags and invading UN helicopters would not be far behind.

The amount of money sloshing around American politics these days is stupefying. In 1998, the average amount needed to campaign successfully for a House seat (with elections held every two years) was $666,000. A winning senator, on average, needed $4.5m. We can be sure that these amounts increased vastly for last year's elections and that, in all (including the presidential election), more than $3bn was spent on campaigning - around double what was spent as recently as 1992.

Money drives nearly everything American, and US politics is no exception. No less a figure than Senator Daniel Webster, asked to help renew the licence for a bank in 1833, asked for secret payments in return. "There are two things that are important in politics," said one of the Republicans' legendary big bosses, Senator Mark Hanna, 62 years later. "The first is money and I can't remember what the second one is." Following the Watergate scandal - and revelations that Richard Nixon had been given huge sums of money by the likes of Bebe Rebozo - the country went through one of its periodical puritanical scourges, and various amendments were hastily made to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act. In particular, no individual or entity was allowed to give more than $2,000 to a candidate during an election cycle ($1,000 for the primary campaign, another $1,000 for the actual election).

But by 1980, a loophole had been found - and campaign finances quickly divided into "hard" and "soft" money. Hard money was contributed openly to candidates: for last year's presidential campaigns, the Democrats raised $269.9m and the Republicans $447.4m in hard money. Soft money was that given by corporations, trade unions or wealthy individuals - usually to a front organisation such as last year's Republicans for Clean Air movement, which was financed by the Texan billionaire brothers Charles and Sam Wyly, who supported Boy George. For the 2000 election, the Democrats ended up with $243.1m soft money in their coffers, compared with the Republicans' $244.4m - in contrast with the 1992 figures of $36.3m and $49.8m, respectively.

For the past week, the mantra of the DC lobbyists - who themselves benefit from this phenomenal largesse - was that restricting the rights of such non-existent organisations during election campaigns would be unconstitutional.

Then the Democrats started to realise that they would probably suffer even more than the Republicans if soft money were banned in the way that McCain and Feingold propose, which says that there will be no advertising on behalf of a candidate for 60 days before an election. Soft money, mainly from the unions, accounts for a proportionately larger share of Democratic campaign financing. The biggest benefactor in last year's Congressional campaigns was Hillary Clinton, to whom the unions donated $9m.

Washington has thus been the scene of much frantic backtracking in the past week, though the debate in the Senate will continue for another week. Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, doing Boy George's dirty work for him, has introduced a much watered-down version of the McCain-Feingold bill - and the likelihood is that some kind of mishmash will go through with Boy George's blessing. That will enable every politician here from Boy George downwards (or do I mean upwards?) to insist: "I kept my promise to support campaign finance reform" - even though Hagel's version in effect perpetuates the status quo.

Those soft-money campaign ads ("Why does Al Gore say one thing when the truth is another?") were almost certainly the crucial factor in deciding who should be in the White House until 2005. Boy George has already reneged on his promise to force power plants to restrict CO2 greenhouse-gas emissions, leaving Christie Whitman, the new head of the Environment Protection Agency, to twist slowly in the wind. But then Boy George received millions from oil, gas and coal bosses. And he owes them in return, doesn't he? It's a dirty business, this politics.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich rule politics again