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Making public policy:Show me the money

By Staff
One or two folk of my acquaintance have seemed surprises at the last minute pardons which bookmarked the inglorious final days of the Clinton presidency. These same people have expressed right harsh judgments about plea bargains with special prosecutors.
In my usual wishy-washy manner, I am of two or three minds about both the twilight pardons and the plea deal.
The plea bargain was easiest for me. The world knows the guy lied. Like a rug. He will not be the last person to lie about a sexual transgression. Most will lie to their partner. Some will lie to their friends. Obviously some will even lie under oath.
To recognize this reality is neither condemnation or approval of the action or the lie. Most of us find it difficult to forgive the repentant much less the unrepentant. And in the world of politics words like "I sinned, I lied, I was wrong, help me achieve forgiveness" are not on any teleprompters. These words are the vocabulary of private dialogue.
System of law
But in the public life we account to a system of law. Lying under oath transgresses our code of behavior or law. The closest thing to those words about sin and forgiveness is agreement of guilt and acceptance of responsibility with penalties.
The plea bargain simply confirmed what we knew. The penalties seem a bit light but I do believe all parties were served reasonably well. Our justice system ground out a result. Bill Clinton got his formal scarlet letter complete with a fine. The case is closed. Let the historians deal with it.
I found the matter of pardons more interesting. Granting pardons to political friends and contributors is corrupt. Justice for sale? The most friendly construction is "it sure looks that way." A clearer view is the "you bet." Campaign finance fund raisers probably have the price lists complete with rate cards for the Lincoln Bedroom. Pardons? Well now, let the bidding begin/
It is regrettable that those who merit pardons must live under the same cloud of corruption with those who purchased their absolution. But that's how it is. As they say "money talks."
Campaign finance reform
However, all this is looking back. Since money is an important tool in influencing public policy maybe we need to find ways to recognize that reality. Yes, gentle reader, I am wandering down the road toward reform of campaign finance and public policy advocacy or lobbying. Did that collection of pardons help sell anyone on the need for reform?
It is easy to blame the ex-President. And clearly he has responsibility for this instance of marketing justice. But pardons are easy to see. Maybe like the tip of the iceberg. What's missing here? How about the citizenry?
Given that public policy is built by folks connected to all manner of special interest groups isn't it past time to get a better handle on who pays whom for what? What's the price of a word or two in new legislation or regulation? Who pays the the guys whispering to congressional staff? How clearly can citizens see how our laws are shaped and administered?
Web of interest
The questions come easy. The answers? Stalled. Most recently on the road to the White House. When the Dubya Bush left John McCain in his dust, campaign finance reform moved below the campaign horizon. It still amazes me that Dubya's foot soldiers did not exploit Al Gore's record of indifference to the regulatory niceties of campaign fund raising.
So I am among those cheering Senator McCain's continuing push toward modestly reforming reporting requirements for political contributions. Congressional approval of McCain-Feingold as the proposal is labeled should make tracking political contributions a bit easier.
Put me among those interested in President Bush's response to whatever finance reforms the divided Congress can achieve. As a defender of the current system, his bi-partisan persona may be tested a bit. Those who suspect his position on this issue has already been purchased could get a surprise.
As for me, I go with Dwight David Eisenhower. In my book, his farewell address sounded a warning we're never clearly heard. Sort of like George Washington's counsel about the rise of political parties. Wonderful advice. Untaken. Even ignored.
In a nutshell Ike instructed us to"beware of the military-industrial complex." Stated another way "look out for the web of interests that links big industry and national defense into a continuing common agenda." Or in clearer language of Little Orphan Annie, "don't let Daddy Warbucks create public policy."
We've not listened very well. I believe John McCain has heard Ike's counsel. A hero to hero dialogue. U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., has become engaged that conversation as an advocate for the McCain-Feingold proposal. Statesmen are heroes also.
Bill Scaggs is president emeritus at Meridian Community College and a senior consulting editor for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at wscaggs@themeridianstar.com.

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