While visiting the House in the earliest days of Newt’s reign, I went to one of his suddenly scheduled press conferences. Newt began with self-congratulations. He was (yet really wasn’t) amazed at his historical moment. Reform-minded voters had embraced his “Contract With America.” Still, he noted, on today’s Contract item — term limits — honest revolutionaries could disagree. For example, exactly how many years should a member of Congress be permitted to serve? In a good-faith effort to let democratic debate decide such details, Newt announced he would allow several measures to reach the House floor.
After deriding a few of the media’s questions, Newt signed a blown-up poster of a nonspecific term limit pledge and exited. I rushed after him, but he’d already disappeared into the bowels of the Capitol. I would have asked him: Why did he keep away the main grassroots group pushing term limits? Why was he enforcing military discipline on every Contract item except this one? Didn’t that guarantee no limits threatening the new GOP majority would ever be approved?
Of course, Newt’s sound and fury signified something more than mere hypocrisy on a single amendment of dubious efficacy. His brisk legislative struts upon the national stage were meant to create the illusion of a popular insurgency while distracting the press from his shakedowns and payoffs. This strategy proved so successful that Newt and his confederates became brazen. A distinctive — perhaps the distinctive — characteristic of the 104th House has been the shameless way it has cut deals with its donors.
Our cover package tells stories of corruption that would be comic were not real lives affected. Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), for example, is known for embracing the most crazed militias and anti-environmental extremists. But she also collected cash from the manufacturer of a possibly lethal baby cradle and drafted legislation that would have reduced company liability.
Paybacks like this weren’t difficult to foresee. In fact, this magazine predicted many right after the 1994 election. Our soothsaying relied heavily on common sense: Most large political donors want something in return. While looking for those somethings, we rarely encounter other journalists. This absence of consistent competition is both a relief and a concern. We like to break news, but often find our investigations greeted with indifference by our colleagues.
Whenever an election season begins, however, a shift occurs. The press wants background — just in case something breaks. For example, most of the major media attended a press conference we gave on April 17 detailing the nicotine network we’d discovered throughout the Dole campaign, the Congress, and the statehouses. We flatly predicted: “Tobacco politics could become the hottest issue in this year’s election.” The coverage was spotty and the skepticism thick. Then a few weeks later, Dole began speaking like Marlboro’s man and his fortunes turned.
Were reporters alert now, they would notice that American politics is at a turning point. The public is trying to express its anti-elitist rage, but can’t find a party that will follow through on its populist rhetoric. The media have become complicit with the moneyed elites. The press will cover rivalries between elites, but rarely questions basic corruption and the ongoing consolidation of wealth.
The best guide I’ve found to what’s happening in America today is Elementi di scienza politica, published by the Sicilian Gaetano Mosca in 1896. He asserts that elites will inevitably rule, but observes that the key difference in advanced societies is that “wealth produces political power just as [in less developed societies] political power has been producing wealth.” The public bureaucracy, Mosca believes, serves the wealthy by providing a protective legal framework while disguising the “overbearing assertiveness on the part of wealth.”
In 1994, voters responded to Gingrich’s attacks on Washington because they sensed the Democratic majority wasn’t on their side. Once in power, however, Gingrich, Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and the rest of our Dirty Dozen betrayed voters by shifting public subsidies not back to the general populace but to their own wealthy patrons. Some of the giveaways were direct and others devious — e.g., mandating a market for Golden Rule Insurance under the guise of reforming Medicare.
Newt’s Machiavellian streak wouldn’t surprise Mosca, who marries an Old World desire to accept the world as it is with modern scientific detachment. In comparison, most Americans are simultaneously more idealistic and more hands-on. Our current cynicism about politics betrays an underlying faith: We believe in the redemptive powers of opportunity, and we want to give everyone a fair shake. Our basic instinct is to divide political power in the hope that contending parties will prevent the formation of a permanent plutocracy.
This hasn’t worked because on the central political issue of the day — campaign finance — the parties refuse to contend. Most of the exposés in our cover package concern corruption that has remained unknown to the public because key Democrats haven’t protested.
The political animal’s first instinct is survival. But he or she also craves approval. It’s becoming harder to satisfy both urges. The gulf between our politicians’ two constituencies — the elites who fund them and the voters whom they ostensibly serve — keeps widening. Until we fundamentally change the financial rules of the electoral game, finding another Dirty Dozen in the 105th Congress will be painfully easy.