- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

All the talk about how big money is corrupting Washington may have some politicians eager to prove they never did any favors for Kenneth Lay.
But let's face it: Nobody opens his wallet inside the Beltway without expecting something in return. Fortunately, if you're willing to spread some cash around, you can still get something tangible for your contribution, and the people seeking money are pretty brazen about the nature of the transaction.
At the moderately conservative American Enterprise Institute, for example, forking over a grand will secure a subscription to the American Enterprise magazine, a monthly newsletter, a seat at the Bradley Lecture Series, and a free copy of every new AEI book (recent titles: "On Character" and "The Ethics of Human Cloning") as soon as it comes off the press.
Discreetly slipping a $1,000 check to the more conservative Heritage Foundation will buy a quarterly newsletter, "periodic briefings on critical issues," and invitations to lectures by such renowned orators as Trent Lott and Dick Armey. If you've got a little more cash on hand, there's the libertarian Cato Institute, which tempts fat cats with subscriptions to Regulation magazine and the Cato Journal regular access to which will cost you $2,500.
But really big spenders may prefer the deals being cut at the liberal Brookings Institution. Hand over an envelope containing $10,000, and you can waltz right into "working lunches at Brookings." If cost is really no object, you can lay out $50,000 to join Brookings' Chairman's Circle. Its benefits include everything offered to lesser givers, such as "an opportunity to request private meetings with scholars," and more. "Customized benefits are developed through dialogue with the donor," if you know what I mean.
Now, the equivalent of a mortgage payment or two may seem like a lot just to own your very own copy of Regulation magazine. And for 10 grand, you might expect a month's worth of dinners at the fanciest restaurant in Washington, not lunch in a conference room full of fiscal experts and nuclear policy analysts. But year in and year out, people give money to operations like these. So you have to wonder if they don't have some hidden motive.
The plain fact is, they do. They give because they like the work being done by this think tank or that, and they feel the urge to support and advance it.
You would never know it from listening to the advocates pushing campaign finance "reform," but people who give money for political purposes don't necessarily expect something in return. Besides contributing to AEI, Mr. Lay gave tens of thousands to Resources for the Future, an obscure though respected think tank that does research on environmental issues. I highly doubt he thought those contributions were going to win him special treatment by the House Ways and Means Committee.
Believe it or not, many wealthy people give huge sums of money to political and social causes for more or less public-spirited reasons. Says Ira Glasser, who ran the American Civil Liberties Union for more than two decades, "In my experience, most people give to causes and organizations for the same reason they give to churches they belong to. They believe strongly in the cause."
He says people give to candidates for the same reason not because they think their money will change how he or she will vote on a bill. "Eugene McCarthy didn't oppose the Vietnam War because antiwar people gave him money," says Glasser. "Antiwar people gave him money because he opposed the war."
Supporters of campaign finance reform scoff at the idea that Enron's people gave to politicians for any reason except to purchase influence by the yard. But the exchange didn't quite work as alleged: Millions in contributions to candidates and parties couldn't buy a life preserver when bankruptcy loomed.
So why do corporate titans hand over perfectly good cash to politicians? The simplest explanation is that capitalists, like other people, often have definite views about public policy and want to elect candidates whose views are similar. It's not much different from the reason they support think tanks and lobby groups and not necessarily any more corrupt.
Just as it makes far more sense for a conservative donor to give to Heritage than to attempt to buy off the scholars at Brookings, political donors are much more likely to contribute to candidates who already agree with them than to bribe those who don't. In each case, about the only thing they can really hope to gain is better public policy.
If Ken Lay thought he was going to get favors for the campaign donations he and his underlings made, he must be marvelling at the ingratitude of politicians. But at least he's got his AEI newsletter.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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