Money, not morals, drove senator out

Sexual misdemeanours are dwarfed by proof of politicians in thrall to big business. John Carlin reports from Washington
Click to follow
The Independent Online
SIX US senators discover a bomb in the Capitol building. If it goes off, they realise, it could blow Congress sky high. The tension is agonising but the senators collect themselves, weigh up the risks and boldly defuse the bomb.

This is not the script for Die Hard 4. It happened.

The six senators - three Republicans and three Democrats - sit on the Senate ethics committee. Ten days ago they completed investigations into allegations that one of their own, Bob Packwood, had a history of making "unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances" on his female staff. After sifting through 10,145 pages of evidence, including Mr Packwood's extraordinarily candid personal diary, the committee concluded that he was guilty. At a press conference, the Republican chairman of the committee, Senator Mitch McConnell, declared that only one course of action was possible: expulsion from the Senate.

There was something odd about this. No senator had been thrown out like this since the Civil War, when the charge was treason, and if propriety in sexual behaviour were to be the test of whether a member should keep his seat, then who would be safe? This was hardly the most lecherous or outrageous senator in a century.

Mr Packwood, who claimed he was the victim of an inquisition, begged to be allowed a public hearing. Surely he was entitled to this? He had been serving in the Senate for 27 years and, in his capacity as chairman of the mighty Senate finance committee, he was a pillar of the political establishment.

Far from reconsidering, Mr McConnell and other old allies of Mr Packwood beseeched him to fall on his sword. John McCain, a Republican senator and former prisoner of war in Hanoi, went to his office and said: "It's going to be a bloodletting. You've got to quit and you've got to quit now." That afternoon Mr Packwood took the Senate floor and, choking back tears, did as he was told.

What convinced him was the realisation that if the public hearings had gone ahead it was not only his reputation that would have been on the line. The reputation of the entire US Congress, the legitimacy of the American political system itself, was at stake. If he did not go quietly, he might bring down the whole edifice with him - or, at any rate, raise an almighty public clamour for a clean-out of the congressional stables.

Because, as Mr McConnell and his colleagues had discovered to their horror, the diaries contained material far more damaging than Mr Packwood's references to the "big breasts" of his female subordinates. They also provided compelling proof of something the vast majority of Americans have long suspected: that their elected representatives in Washington do not, in fact, represent them; that their priority is to accommodate the wealthy interest groups who pay their bills and who use election campaign contributions to secure the laws they want.

According to a poll released last month by a non-partisan group called American Talk Issues, 70 per cent of people believe that "the government is run for the benefit of special interests not to benefit most Americans"; 73 per cent believe "politicians work for themselves and their own careers, not the people they represent"; 81 per cent believe "government tax policies help large corporations and the wealthy more than average people". The only unusual thing about this poll was that it was so comprehensive. Poll after poll since the end of the Cold War, since Americans stopped peering over the trenches and started looking closely at themselves, has revealed discontent with the institutions of government and those who run them.

It is this discontent that is driving General Colin Powell's tantalising suggestion, expressed last week, that the time might be ripe for a "sensible" third party in American politics. In 1992 Ross Perot capitalised on this mood and picked up a staggering 19 per cent of the national vote.

Mr Perot derived much of his success from selling the idea that, as a billionaire outsider, he could not be bought. In a speech this year he noted that the average senator had to raise $12,800 (some pounds 8,000) a week during his six-year term in order to finance his re-election campaign. Addressing himself to the politicians caught in the system, he said: "You're going to have to make some strong commitments that have nothing to do with the best interests of the country."

This is the real reason why Bob Packwood had to go. Had the public hearings into his case gone ahead, the Senate grandees realised, the truth of Mr Perot's words would have been laid bare before a TV audience. Such a spectacle might have done for the political establishment what the OJ Simpson trial is doing for the legal system. Glued as most Americans have been to developments in the Los Angeles County Court, few still cherish the old idea that in their country there is justice for all. Money - the huge sums spent on the defence team - is buying Mr Simpson a "reasonable doubt" verdict denied the vast majority of Americans charged with murder. Lawyers are in a panic, claiming on TV show after TV show that no, the goings-on at the Simpson trial bear no likeness to anything they've ever seen before in a court of law.

Senator McConnell, fearing similar exposure of his own trade, said after handing down his committee's verdict on Mr Packwood that he had no intention of "playing Judge Ito" at a congressional hearing which would have been "as much a daytime circus as the OJ trial".

Had Mr Packwood got his wish the American public would have learned how commonplace it is for a respected member of the Senate to cast votes against his conscience and for his wallet.

In 1989, Mr Packwood wrote in his diary about a lobbyist for Shell who had requested that he vote in favour of a tax bill that would provide important financial benefits for the oil company. The lobbyist was a friend of Mr Packwood's who had used his contacts with Shell and other company clients to raise election funds for the senator. "Ron, I still hate the oil companies, but I'll do you a favour," Mr Packwood wrote in his diary. His vote helped the bill become law.

The most damning revelation came in a March 1992 entry concerning a meeting with Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate who recently observed: "Ready money is the most reliable friend you can have in American politics." According to the diary, Mr Gramm promised Mr Packwood $100,000 of what is known in Washington as "soft money" - contributions by private donors which may not be legally spent on national elections, only on political activities at state level. The diary read: "He [Gramm] says, now of course you know there can't be any legal connection between this money and Sen Packwood, but we know that it will be used for his benefit. . . I think that's a felony, I'm not sure."

It has been an open secret in Washington for some time that soft money - which, by contrast with formal campaign contributions, is not subject to any limits - is routinely funnelled to individual members of Congress. The donors, as well as the benefactors, know it.

Unsurprisingly, soft money has been flooding Republican coffers since the party seized control of both houses of Congress in November last year. In January and February soft money contributions to the Republican Party exceeded $7m - more than the Republicans raised during the whole of 1993. The biggest single donor was Philip Morris, America's largest cigarette company. Continually under siege from pressure groups calling for tighter regulation of the tobacco business, Philip Morris saw "tremendous opportunities", as a memorandum to shareholders said in March this year, to use "the new faces and new leadership on Capitol Hill. . . to get new and unbiased hearings". Sure enough, the new Republican chairman of the commerce committee of the House of Representatives, Thomas Bliley, is on record as having said: "I don't think we need any more legislation regulating tobacco."

The most spectacular recent example of the politicians-for-hire phenomenon was provided in the House of Representatives in June when a majority of members of Congress, heavily influenced as most are by the defence lobby, voted to give the Pentagon $9bn more than the Pentagon itself had requested for next year's military budget. This included two B-2 Stealth bombers that the Pentagon had said it did not want. What Mr Packwood's diaries have done is starkly expose the connection between those who have the money and those who make the laws.

What can be done? Every now and again members of Congress mutter piously about the need to reform campaign finance rules, Mr Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, among them. In a TV interview last week he acknowledged the problem, but rapidly dismissed it, explaining that there were far more pressing issues on the congressional agenda - such as cutting welfare.

Mr Gingrich and his Republican supporters in Congress blame America's ills on unwed teenage mothers, immigrants, the unemployed, the poor and the blacks.

Had Senator McConnell and his colleagues not acted swiftly to limit the damage of the Packwood scandal, Americans would have seen, on television, a quite different ill that is besetting their country - one involving rich companies, rich politicians and deals behind closed doors. But now that Mr Packwood has agreed to go quietly, that spectacle will be denied them.