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Wednesday, September 8, 1999
Home Edition
Section: Metro
Commentary

PERSPECTIVE ON POLITICS

Business Has a Stake in Making Campaign Reform Work

To get control of 'soft money,' everyone's got to stop playing the giving game by the same old rules.

By: JEROME KOHLBERG
Jerome Kohlberg was a founding partner of the investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. He founded Campaign for America and the Campaign Reform Project in 1995

Thanks to Warren Beatty's highly publicized hints about a possible presidential bid, campaign finance reform is a hot topic again. That's good news for the country, and it's especially good news for the business community.

Why the business community? In my view, the business community has an enormous stake in establishing a fair, dignified and transparent alternative to the present system. And business leaders really don't like being repeatedly dunned for contributions.

Incredibly enough, there are those who argue that corporate campaign contributions are not designed specifically to buy access and influence. Here's a way to put the "access and influence" versus "free speech" debate to the test: Just imagine what would happen if corporate leaders and other donors were legally barred from disclosing whether, how much and to whom they made campaign contributions. My guess is that under this kind of "blind trust" arrangement, very little campaign money would be raised from the business community. Not being able to take credit for political donations would violate the underlying rationale for corporate giving. Let me be clear: I am not offering this blind trust idea as a viable alternative to necessary reforms like immediate electronic disclosure or banning soft money.

Why does business put up with what increasingly looks like nothing more than a corporate shakedown? Although sensitive to the negative public relations aspects of donating large amounts of money to political parties and candidates, many business leaders feel compelled to play the political donation game. They just don't want to leave the field wide open for their marketplace competitors.

While understandable, I believe this is a short-sighted view. I believe the business community has an overriding interest in helping to restore the public's faith both in the way we finance political campaigns and in government more generally. But we've got our work cut out for us.

Opinion polls repeatedly show that the public is deeply mistrustful of government and turned off by politics as usual. Our democratic system, which has provided the social and governmental structure necessary for the private sector to flourish, is rooted in the principle that government must be supported by "the consent of the governed." But that lofty principle rings hollow when so few Americans actively participate in the democratic process. A mere 38% of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots in the 1998 election, and only 49% voted in 1996, the lowest voter participation rate in a presidential election in 70 years.

As a substantial donor in the past, I became disenchanted by the whole process, particularly the recent surge in unlimited and unregulated "soft" money donations to political parties. As a result, I decided to stop playing the giving game by the old rules and try to change the rules. In 1995, together with the late Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), I established the Campaign Reform Project to help educate the public about the importance of passing meaningful campaign finance reform. Dozens of business leaders, including Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett, Sara Lee Chairman John H. Bryan and former Merck Chairman Roy Vagelos, have joined the Campaign Reform Project's business advisory council.

While only Congress can change federal campaign finance laws, business leaders could take the initiative in one of two ways:

* Reconsider their current plans to give soft-money donations in light of the broader public interest at stake. If corporate America were to give a collective cry of "enough already" to the current system, the reform train would leave the station in a hurry.

* Alternatively, at the very least chief executive officers of public corporations could voluntarily disclose in their annual reports to shareholders what I refer to as their corporate "A&I" (Access and Influence) budgets.

There must be a better way to finance campaigns, one that succeeds in meeting the legitimate needs of politicians for the resources they need, of businesses and interest groups for proper access to governmental leaders, as well as of the public for a government of unquestioned integrity and a relatively level playing field among all interested parties.

If politics-as-usual is seen as producing government of, by and for the special interests, the foundations of our democracy and our free enterprise system will begin to erode, washed away by the perception of favoritism and unfairness.

Business leaders can display a sense of patriotic duty by strengthening, not undermining, our democratic institutions. In the final analysis, good government is good business.