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Money Talks: Who are the Millionaires Having Their Way in Washington?

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The regular Monday feature about money: PACs, Campaign Financing, and Campaign Finance Reform. Pacifica national affairs correspondent Larry Bensky talks with Mother Jones magazine editor Jeffrey Klein about the April 1996 cover story, “Deep Pockets: The Millionaires Who Set Washington’s Agenda.” Modeled after Forbes magazine’s top 400 wealthiest people in the U.S., Mother Jones compiles a list of the top 400 people who donate to political campaigns. While top donors include Republicans and Democrats and liberals and conservatives from all over the political spectrum, they also constitute a kind of plutocracy of interests and have a lot in common, contributing to very different campaigns but in many cases for the same reasons — namely, a fierce desire to pay less on their taxes and to be independent of government intrusion and federal regulation of industry and business.

Other mentions: Fred Lennon; Bob Dole; Phil Gramm; Steven C. LaTourette; ORBIT – Ohio Beat Income Taxes; Lamar Alexander; Phil Stern, The Best Congress Money Can Buy; William Lerach; Bill Clinton; muckraking

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: If it’s Monday, it’s money on Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, and you’re listening to Pacifica’s national election show. Every Monday, we’ll be taking a look at PACs, campaign financing and campaign finance reform. Well, you’ve probably heard of Forbes magazine’s annual list of the 400 wealthiest individuals in the country. Well, now, Mother Jones magazine has compiled a list of their own: the nation’s top 400 political contributors. We now go out to Berkeley to our sister station KPFA and Pacifica national affairs correspondent Larry Bensky.

LARRY BENSKY: Thank you, Amy. I’m here with Jeffrey Klein, who is editor of Mother Jones magazine, which, in its cover story in the latest issue, April 1996, has “Deep Pockets: The Millionaires Who Set Washington’s Agenda, What They Want, How They Get It, and Who They Back.” Welcome, Jeffrey Klein.

JEFFREY KLEIN: Thanks for having me, Larry.

LARRY BENSKY: Jeffrey Klein, the thing that leaps out to one’s eye as one reads over this eye-glazing list of 400 rich people who donate to political campaigns is that they’re really all over the political spectrum. They’re not Republicans. They’re not Democrats. They’re not liberals. They’re not conservatives. They’re people with money who want their money to work.

JEFFREY KLEIN: Yeah, in conventional terms, they’re all over the map, but they constitute a kind of plutocracy of interests, and they have a lot of things in common. Now, they contribute to different people to—but in many cases they’re looking for very similar aims. For example, capital gains cuts are something that unites a lot of people across our list, because a lot of people are wealthy, and they want to pay less on their taxes. A lot of people want estate tax cuts. And many of them, even though they’re—they have a particular industry, whether it be waste management or they’re hocking something over the phones, they want to gut federal regulation. So you have a commonality of going after the government’s ability to intrude, even to monitor, in some cases, what businesses do. So I see a fundamental regression to the 1890s, that’s shared by a lot of Democrats, not as extreme as the Republicans, but an independence is what they fundamentally want. And then a third thing that everybody wants is subsidies. Granted, they want subsidies for different kinds of industries, but the—some of the industries we’d traditionally think of as Democratic, and some are Republican, but they want—

LARRY BENSKY: Corporate welfare is what they want.

JEFFREY KLEIN: Absolutely.

LARRY BENSKY: Now, you have a sub-headline here on the page where you discuss number one, numero uno, of this gang, Fred Lennon—


LARRY BENSKY: —ninety-year-old businessman.

JEFFREY KLEIN: Household name, huh?

LARRY BENSKY: Says “Fred Who?” And that was exactly my reaction when I read the name. Fred Lennon is the guy who gives more money than anybody else in the United States.


LARRY BENSKY: Gave $524,450 since 1993, all of it to the Republican Party, including big donations to Bob Dole and Phil Gramm. What’s in it for him?

JEFFREY KLEIN: Fred’s got about three things that he’s interested in. And when we get into these figures, though, by the way, we should say that in most instances, we found that they gave far more than some listed. The $524,450 for Fred Lennon is all that he gave through the FEC, but our story shows that he shook down the distributors of his pipefitting company for over a quarter-million dollars, and he shook down some Democratic distributors in distant states to give to a Republican congressman in Ohio that they hadn’t even heard of. He shook down their wives of the distributors. And we called up some of the wives, and we asked them, “Why did you contribute to Congressman LaTourette?” And they said, “I’ve never heard of Congressman LaTourette.”

But back to your original question, he has three things that he’s looking for. Number one, he’s got a high-priced pipefitting product. It sells for about 25 percent of the comparable product. It brings pipes together. He sells a fair number of these to the defense department. I’m sure he wants the defense department to continue to pay 25 percent more. Number two, he hates unions. He hates organized labor. He has a very well-controlled, almost militarily controlled workforce and dress codes and so on throughout his thing. And he—we got a hold of a letter from LaTourette’s office in which Fred Lennon urged him to scale back the National Labor Relations Board because, he says, “this agency has grown to be perhaps the biggest enemy of American business.” And so he’s—

LARRY BENSKY: Well, let me just quote from that letter for a second—


LARRY BENSKY: —because I think it’s really important. This is Congressman LaTourette, a first-term Republican from Ohio who received large campaign donations from many industrial interests, including Fred Lennon. And this is Lennon’s letter to LaTourette, July 31st, 1995. “Before you break for the August recess, I believe you will be voting on the Labor/HHS/Education Appropriations Bill. This is a very important vote. I hope you will vote to pass it just as the Appropriations Committee sends it to the floor.” And this, of course, is because it cuts 176 federal programs. It defunds Clinton’s executive order on striker replacements, scales back the National Labor Relations Board, etc. In other words, here is a clear-cut case of a major campaign donor saying to a member of Congress—


LARRY BENSKY: —that he donated to, “Vote my way.”

JEFFREY KLEIN: Yeah, absolutely. And he didn’t—it’s just not that he donated to him; he directed—the majority of this guy’s out-of-state contributions came from Fred Lennon’s shakedown operation. And LaTourette’s going to have to go back to Lennon in this next election to ask for more money. You know, people always say—and LaTourette has already said, you know, “Oh, one letter, how does it influence me?” Well, it influences him and many other politicians because they’ve got to go back to the well over and over again, and if you don’t do what your patrons suggest, then your patrons are going to freeze you out.

There’s a third and more important thing that Mr. Lennon is going after, though. It’s the same thing Mr. Gallo is going after. Mr. Lennon has a billion-dollar business. There is legislation, a couple different bills in Congress, and I think it’s going to percolate around for a while, to really get rid of the ceiling on estate taxes, so—or, sorry, limit the ceiling at which you have an exemption. And so, you’ve got a billion-dollar business, this Crawford Pipefitting, which, by the way, is as medieval in its secrecy as Mr. Lennon’s shakedown operation is, and he wants to transfer this to his family without paying a penny in estate taxes. He had—one of his groups for a while had this acronym called OBIT, Ohio Beat Income Taxes. He hates any kind of taxes, and he wants to escape taxes on these businesses. And they put this—

LARRY BENSKY: Well, if he wasn’t 90 years old, he’d probably run for president himself, like Steve Forbes, because he has the same general approach to wealth.

JEFFREY KLEIN: Yeah, absolutely. And such a bill on family businesses always goes—you kind of think of this mom-and-pop plumbing store that the family worked at, and it’s worth $212,000 or something. But this is a billion-dollar enterprise.

LARRY BENSKY: OK, well, let—

JEFFREY KLEIN: And so this investment is very minor, you’ve got to think of. You know, we’re looking at a million dollars from him and people he’s shaken down, but—

LARRY BENSKY: But out of a billion, it’s not much.

JEFFREY KLEIN: Nothing. It’s nothing.


JEFFREY KLEIN: Politics is a very, very good investment for the rich.

LARRY BENSKY: Well, let me get to the point about the people who give this money, because as I read through the Mother Jones list of 400, I recognized a number of names, a number of people, Democrats and Republicans, into whose faces I’ve stuck microphones over the years—


LARRY BENSKY: —saying, you know, “Why do you give money to this party? Why do you support this party?” And they basically say, “It’s my money. This is the way I spend my money. I earned it fair and square,” although in many cases they inherited it fair and square, “and this is perfectly legal. And believe me, you can’t buy a politician,” they say to me over and over again. “All you buy is access to that politician, so you get your phone calls returned and your letters opened.” What do you say to that?

JEFFREY KLEIN: Well, they’re probably right: You can’t buy a politician; you have to rent them. And you rent them for two- or six-year periods. So you’re renting them when you’re paying this down. This access question is just complete baloney, because if you’re a congressman or a senator—and I’ve stuck my microphone in their face, or sometimes I’ve turned the microphone off and asked them off the record, and they’ll say, “I spend 50 percent of my time fundraising.” A senator spends 50 percent of their time fundraising.

LARRY BENSKY: Oh, it’s more than that now. I mean, somebody like Lamar Alexander, for example, running for president—


LARRY BENSKY: —the other day he had a conference call with 250 people the day after the Iowa caucuses, it said in The New York Times, trying to fundraise. He spent his entire day on the phone fundraising. Bob Dole, it’s estimated now, has to raise, or has raised, $9,000 a day. It used to be said—


LARRY BENSKY: —when Phil Stern wrote his famous book a few years ago, The Best Congress Money Can Buy


LARRY BENSKY: —he estimated that it took the average senator $10,000 a week to keep—


LARRY BENSKY: —running all the time. Now Bob Dole raises $9,000 a day.

JEFFREY KLEIN: Right. So imagine if you’re spending somewhere between 50 and 100 percent of your time fundraising. Who are you surrounded by? You’re surrounded by wealthy people. You’re hearing wealthy people’s interests over and over and over again. At the very least, assuming you’re honest, which is a big assumption in this case, your whole world view is surrounded by their complaints about, you know, “The minimum wage is killing me,” “The FEC is killing me,” “The FDC is killing me,” “The FDA is killing me,” “The SEC is killing me,” and all of a sudden that becomes your concern.

Let me go also to the question of their money made honestly. There’s a fair number of crooks on our list. These are people who run into problems with these agencies, and they go then to the government to fix their problems. And then there’s other kinds of things that your money buys you. Your money buys you a lack of discussion about things that would naturally heal this country. Let’s take for example the erosion of the middle class, I mean, or something as simple as why are corporate executives getting multimillion-dollar bonuses for laying off, you know, 20, 30—whatever—thousand people. If you didn’t have the politicians controlled by this money, that would be a natural political question that’s occurring. Now it’s vaguely occurring to Bob Dole now because he’s run into problems from Pat Buchanan, but I guarantee you it will vaguely dis-occur to him if he’s ever elected.

LARRY BENSKY: Well, let me go to the other side of the spectrum. The people who give this money, as we just discussed, say it just buys access, you can’t buy votes; you say, well, that’s true, you just rent votes. On the part of the politicians, they always come back to some version of the great, vulgar nostrum from the ultimately politically incorrect Assembly head in California in the 1970s, Jesse Unruh—


LARRY BENSKY: —who said, “If you can’t drink their booze, eat their food and screw their women and then vote against them, you don’t belong in politics.” That’s what politicians will come back at you and say, although they won’t use the “screw their women” anymore as a general rule, unless they’re really drunk. But they say that to you, “You know, you really can’t buy me. I’ll take their money, and I’ll gladly vote against them.” Is this true?

JEFFREY KLEIN: Well, we—no, it’s not true. And there’s this great guy, Greg Boller, down in University of Mississippi or someone—may be getting his university in Mississippi wrong—and he correlates—he correlates people’s contributions with their votes, and he gets these unbelievably high correlatives for what industry gave them money and how they voted on a particular bill. Now, it is true that in certain constituencies—and if you take the presidency, for example—you will get conflicting power centers. Number two on our list is William Larach. He gave an awful lot to Clinton, and he encouraged Clinton—let’s put it generously—he encouraged Clinton to veto this Securities Reform Act, and Clinton did indeed veto it. It was immediately overridden by the Congress because Silicon Valley, all the businessmen, didn’t like this. This Lerach seems like a bad guy to me. He seems like he’s hovering around Silicon Valley, waiting for stock prices to get volatile, and then he’s suing the Intels of the world—

LARRY BENSKY: Well, he makes, as you say in the magazine, an estimated $7 million a year—


LARRY BENSKY: —by litigating such suits. And there again, his half-a-million-dollars given to Democrats would seem only like an investment.

JEFFREY KLEIN: But I want to go to the point of the overriding, which is that the Silicon Valley people called up Clinton—I know—the next day and said, “Hey, we’re not going to give you another penny.” So sometimes politicians do have to balance their contributors, and sometimes their contributors are at odds.

LARRY BENSKY: Well, let me ask you about Mother Jones’s approach to this and the whole question of journalism. There are a lot of people who say, “We read these stories many times a month, if we want to.”


LARRY BENSKY: The Wall Street Journal prints stories about politicians and their links to money and big contributors. The New York Times does it, The Washington Post.


LARRY BENSKY: Everybody does it. The net effect, many people are saying, on the body politic is to make people turned off and say, “It’s all the same bunch of corrupt crooks. I’m not going to take part in that system, period.” And they don’t vote, and they don’t take part. Why is your exposé more contributory to a democratic participation—small d—than the other exposés that all these other newspapers and media are doing?

JEFFREY KLEIN: It’s a very legitimate question. It’s a question that haunts me. It’s haunted investigative reporters for a century. You can say that the first muckraking at the turn of the century caused a drop in party identification, and people fell away from the polls. Tom Leonard has a great book on that. And so that is definitely a potential effect. On the other hand, the exposés of the muckraking era ushered in the Progressive Era. And the Progressive Era brought about fantastic numbers of political reforms, including suffrage, direct election of senators, the initiative, the reform, the recall.

And that’s what we want to usher in. We want to usher in—we want these exposés to have an effect, not to drive people out of the political marketplace, but to make them change the rules. There are some very simple changes that would have an immediate effect, and there are some more harder-to-achieve changes that once we saw the simple effect I think would drive us to it. For example, you want to limit, I think, out-of-state contributions to representatives and senators. You want it so the money at least has to come from the district. You want certainly—everybody of every party should want full and immediate disclosure. All these politicians have their donations on very sophisticated computer discs. They scramble them before they give them to the FEC, so the data comes out six months later. You’ve got to pass a real-time—you know, Joe Millionaire contributes; the next day, we find out about it. That’s a simple way to start. There’s lots of others.

LARRY BENSKY: All right, let’s talk about campaign finance reform—


LARRY BENSKY: —in the few minutes we have left here, because it seems to me it really is at the crux—


LARRY BENSKY: —of what we’re discussing on this program today. If the very same people who benefit from this system are the ones who have to change that system, necessarily, because they have the power to do it, how do you get them to do it?

JEFFREY KLEIN: First of all, you don’t. You have a problem, is that you’re not going to get the incumbents to change the system. Basically, insiders will never change the system, because it works for them. Once you’re an incumbent, you have a fantastic advantage. So you’re going to have to have a grassroots movement change it. I think you might have to have a grassroots movement in a state change it initially. But you need to go up to Bob Dole, now that he’s on this corporate welfare line, and say, you know, “OK, that’s a great—that’s great that you’ve taken up this plank. Whose corporate jet did you fly up here on? Dwayne Andreas, the number three on the Mother Jones list, or Carl Lindner, the number four on the Mother Jones list?” You need to relentlessly expose them as they’re doing—

LARRY BENSKY: When you say “you” — when you say “you,” you’re of course talking about voters, or are you talking about journalists? Because I can tell you, as a reporter who hangs out in Washington—


LARRY BENSKY: —a fair amount over the years, the chance of asking Bob Dole a question is getting so severely restricted—


LARRY BENSKY: —that unless you’re Brit Hume or somebody safe like that, you really don’t get to ask him that question. So, is it going to have to be a voter in the crowd that screams this out?

JEFFREY KLEIN: Well, I think it’s got to be constant pressure. I think we’re at a volatile moment where it actually turns into a live issue for people, so that raising large sums of money in certain conditions can look like a negative: You’re a bought politician. And I think it’s—I think people need to go into politics and demand this. You see, it cuts—it goes off of—it’s not just a left issue. It’s a Perot issue. It’s a right issue. I think it could really catch on.

LARRY BENSKY: Jeffrey Klein, editor of Mother Jones magazine. In the April edition, you can read “Deep Pockets: The Millionaires Who Set Washington’s Agenda, What They Want, How They Get It, and Who They Back.” And if you want to get Mother Jones magazine, you can make an 800-number call: 1 (800) GET-MOJO, 1 (800) GET-MOJO. Ask for the April edition. You’ll read about the Mother Jones 400 and all the influences of money and politics that they’ve been able to research with Federal Election Commission documents. A very revealing list of people in both parties who are putting out big bucks and hoping for big returns. I’m Larry Bensky. Back to Amy Goodman in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks, Larry. That’s it for today’s program. Tomorrow, our right-wing watch takes us to New Hampshire to see how the Christian Coalition is affecting presidential politics and how Lamar Alexander responded to the question, “Would you consider Pat Robertson as your running mate?” Democracy Now! is made possible with support from listeners to Pacifica stations in New York, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Houston. We’d like to extend a special welcome to those of you listening to Democracy Now! on WRTI Philadelphia, KGNU Boulder, KKFI Kansas City, KAOS in Olympia, Washington, and WRPI in Troy, New York.

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