"Somebody once said that Washington was a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency." So John F. Kennedy famously remarked in 1961, and so the town seemed to remain when I first moved there in 1969 to go to school.
Clerks in dusty stores moved with the majestic inertia of tall ships becalmed. You could count the number of good restaurants on the fingers of one hand -- okay, maybe two hands. There was a rendering plant on the south side of K Street that turned animal carcasses into glue; when the wind blew the wrong way, the awful smell brought tears to the eyes of those who lived and shopped along the fashionable lanes of Georgetown.
There were still "temporary" buildings on the National Mall that had been there since the end of World War I, filled with government workers. But any citizen could freely walk the corridors of Congress, enter a member's office to leave an opinion or pick up a pass for the visitors' galleries of the House or Senate, ride that little subway that runs underneath the Capitol. No campaign contributions required.
Or so it seemed to a white, middle-class college kid. Washington also was a city in decline. Not quite a year and a half had passed since the three days of riots that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Thirteen people had died, more than a thousand were hurt, and you could still see piles of rubble and burned out storefronts. Hundreds of businesses had been damaged or destroyed.
Robert Reich -- the new chairman of the non-partisan, citizens' lobby Common Cause -- remembers DC in those days, too. He interned for Bobby Kennedy and later at the Federal Trade Commission. Then the capital changed. By the time Reich became President Clinton's Secretary of Labor in 1993, poverty was still rampant in the city but much of it had been shoved beyond the sightlines of the rich and powerful. "Washington was much fancier," he recalled. "It almost glittered --the hotels and the bistros and the restaurants -- and the money."
Speaking at Common Cause's 40th anniversary dinner on October 6, Reich noted, "It's even wealthier today. You walk around Washington and you see what it is and that money is here for one reason. It may go into the hands of people who are lawyers and public relations people and lobbyists but it is here for one reason and that is to influence our democracy. We have never seen in American history as much money flowing to our nation's capitol. This election that is coming up is an election in which for the first time that I can remember there are hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to candidates and we have no way of knowing who is providing this money at all. Complete, absolute secrecy."
Kenneth Vogel at the website Politico.com echoes Reich: "Never in modern political history has there been so much secret money gushing into an American election. By Election Day, independent groups will have aired more than $200 million worth of campaign ads using cash that can't be traced back to its original source, predicts Fred Wertheimer, president of the non-profit group Democracy 21. 'And this is just the beginning,' Wertheimer said. 'Unless we get some changes here to mitigate this problem, I would expect we will see $500 million or more in 2012.'"
This year "has raised two basic questions that strike at the very core of the ethos of the campaign-finance reform effort: Can the flow of money into elections be limited if the courts have deemed political giving and spending a First Amendment right? Can any system of rules to make money more transparent ever keep up with the legal devices that powerful interests use to keep their influence hidden?"
This is not just the fault of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, although it has unleashed vast new sums of cash into the system -- compare this year's elections with the midterms of four years ago. Nor is it yet because of foreign money attempting to influence elections although, Karl Rove and the US Chamber of Commerce's denials to the contrary, this is a clear and present danger. And true, it's not solely because of deep corporate pockets that Democrats seem to be headed toward a significant setback in three weeks; a still faltering economy and lack of jobs are giving them a brutal slapping around.
But the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act has been eviscerated by the courts and what's left of it is barely enforced by the Federal Election Commission. The same goes for various provisions of the Federal tax code, which need not only stricter enforcement but beefing up.
The October 12 Washington Post editorialized, "Nonprofit advocacy groups, known as 501(c)(4)s, are permitted to engage in political advocacy as long as that is not their primary purpose. Meanwhile, these groups do not have to reveal the identities of their donors. IRS regulations bar such organizations from 'direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office,' but as a practical matter, these limits have not made much difference.
"One such Republican-leaning group, American Crossroads GPS, has touted its ability to keep donor names confidential even as it runs ads in key races. Similarly, trade associations such as the Chamber of Commerce, organized under section 501(c)(6) of the tax code, are not required to disclose donors and are permitted even greater leeway to engage in political activity."
Unfortunately, while the voting public expresses concern over campaign spending, it's not very high on their agenda; most believe it will take an outrage such as Watergate, or at least another Jack Abramoff influence peddling-type scandal to get reform back on the tracks.
Campaign finance reform has been a goal of the organization Common Cause since it was founded in 1970 by the great John Gardner, a Republican.
My friend and colleague Bill Moyers ended their anniversary dinner last week with a call to action, invoking the memory of Gardner and another prominent member of the GOP.
"The founder of Common Cause was a prophet in seeing money as the dagger directed at the heart of democracy," Moyers said. "Like his fellow Republican Teddy Roosevelt, he opposed the 'naked robbery' of the public's trust. A century ago, in one of the most powerful speeches in American political history, Roosevelt said: 'It is not a partisan issue; it is more than a political issue; it is a great moral issue. If we condone political theft, if we do not resent the kinds of wrong and injustice that injuriously affect the whole nation, not merely our democratic form of government but our civilization itself cannot endure.'"
Moyers concluded, "The only way to defeat organized money is with organized people. Now it's your turn."
Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.