By Jerome Kohlberg
Mount Kisco, N.Y.
Two weeks ago I was among a dozen business leaders who met with members of Congress in Washington to highlight our commitment to campaign finance reform. We let them know that the "soft money" system - substantial, unregulated contributions to political parties - is bankrupting our democracy. And we urged them to look beyond the sort-term interests of their political parties or their Congressional leadership and do what's right for the country.
As Warren Buffett notes in our meeting, from a strictly business point of view access is an under priced commodity in the political marketplace. Even what we think of as large soft-money contributions are a small price for big corporations to pay to gain political influence. Unlike those individuals who make large contributions for ideological reasons, corporations give for one reason: self-interest. They can easily justify their expenditures because they get an outstanding return on their investments.
But as bad as the current soft-money donations are, they're just the tip of the iceberg. The price for access is rising rapidly. The result will be an increasingly loud voice for big-moneyed interests, an increasingly alienated electorate and an increasingly fragile democracy.
In the next month, the House of Representatives will have a rare opportunity to restore some balance to our system of campaign contributions. If it does not, access will soon become the privilege of only the Fortune 500 or the Fortune 50 or, worse yet, the Fortune 5.
It's no wonder that business is seen as part of the campaign finance problem. Critics point to the tens of millions contributed by corporate donors in the last election cycle and to the geometric growth of corporate soft-money contributions, and label business an "enemy." But such a surface analysis begs the more important issue: do all businesses and business leaders embrace the current system? The answer is no.
Many corporations don't participate in the giving game at all, even through the establishment of political action committees. The overwhelming majority of companies and corporations don't give soft money. And, as a recent study supported by the Joyce Foundation found, contributors are highly critical of the implied quid pro quo nature of the system, where donors feel pressured by officeholders to make contributions.
But I and other business leaders have found that officeholders also dislike the system. They resent having to spend significant amounts of time raising campaign money, and they feel uncomfortable having contributors pressure them for favors and for access to Government.
In short, both the business leaders and many of the politicians we talk to are increasingly frustrated with and disgusted by a cash race gone out of control. Even as they participate, they feel that the system has become an industry unto itself, caught in a perpetual cycle that increasingly undermines both democracy and genuine business interests.
But the business leaders who joined me in Washington are doing more than voicing their opinions; they are acting on them to become part of the solution. More than 35 of us joined to form the Business Advisory Council of the Campaign Reform Project, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization committed to changing campaign financing. We are working to shatter the myth that business is interested only in perpetuating the system. We are involving other business leaders by explaining that the rapidly rising cost of access may soon price them out of the political marketplace.
As we all know, there is influence in money. If money speaks the language of reform rather than the language of access, it can prompt the action that its current influence is blocking. A few weeks ago, 2554 courageous members of the House - with each party well represented - stood up for reform in a crucial vote.
Their action sustained the strongest reform bill being considered by the House, the Shays-Meehan legislation. Over the next several weeks, House members will have to hold their leadership to its commitment to bring the measure to a vote before the August recess and to insure that Shays-Meehan becomes the bill of record that is sent to the Senate for consideration.
Government is not a commodity like cattle or oil. It is urgent that the House remember the public purpose of Government and restore some dignity to democracy by casting a vote in favor of real campaign finance reform.
Jerome Kohlberg was a founding partner of the Investment firm Kolhberg Kravis Roberts & Company.