Published in The Enterprise, 11-3-97

Democracy Clearance Sale

by Rocky Anderson

What do they take us for? A flock of sheep? Know-nothings? Or just forgiving twits who don’t mind being taken for a ride?

It doesn’t matter, really, what they take us for. What matters is that, to save our democracy, we must stop allowing this nonsense – this outright corruption – that has continued year after year, against our interests and against the interests of millions of others.

The wildness of much of our public land is forever destroyed because of the political contributions of a few huge oil, gas and coal companies. Their cold, hard cash becomes “soft money,” which buys legislation in our democracy-turned-plutocracy.

Obscene amounts of taxpayers’ money are parceled out to corporate campaign contributors. In this day of so-called “welfare reform,” corporate welfare recipients are pigging out like never before at the public-money trough.

And our lives and health are placed at risk in return for campaign contributions from chemical and manufacturing interests.

Consider just one example of how the system works – and how our democracy is being destroyed by those who buy and sell legislation.

In the 1996 campaign cycle, tobacco interests passed on $10.1 million in payola to federal candidates through PACs and soft-money contributions. Of the soft money paid out by tobacco interests during 1995-96, $5,768,591 was paid to Republican Party committees and $1,064,680 was paid to Democratic Party committees. For the first half of 1997, the tobacco industry gave $1.9 million to political party committees and another $575,000 to candidates. All of that on top of nearly $8 million in fees and expenses for Washington lobbyists during the first six months of this year alone.

And that doesn’t count the millions spent on lobbyists and campaign contributions at the state level, where tobacco interests buy influence in the most blatant manner. In a memo, one lobbying supervisor for Philip Morris described the situation in Texas, where there was a threat of raising the excise tax on tobacco products: “Our new comptroller – the person to whom the governor and legislators look for the state’s financial guidance – will be John Sharp. The plan is to give early and large campaign contributions, to Sharp, thereby . . . at the very least buying [his] silence when it comes to locating new revenues.”

Imagine that. A tobacco company “buying” the silence of a public official so that tobacco taxes won’t be raised. Bribery is what these folks are talking about, pure and simple.

And just how crass, and how destructive to the public interest, does it get? Well, at the behest of tobacco industry lobbyists, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (recipient of $60,100 from tobacco interests during 1991-96) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (recipient of $36,300 from tobacco interests during 1995-96), furtively slipped a $50 billion tax break to tobacco companies into the recent budget bill passed by Congress. The tax-break provision was even written by a tobacco industry lobbyist.

And where were the “fiscal conservatives” going to come up with the $50 billion? Recall the cigarette tax increase pushed through Congress by Senators Kennedy and Hatch, the revenues from which were to finance health care for economically-disadvantaged children? You guessed it. The $50 billion was to be diverted from health care for poor children to the most powerful drug cartel on the face of the earth – the US tobacco industry.

Through the tax-break provision, the taxpayers of this country were going to subsidize the payouts of the tobacco industry under any deal finally struck in settlement of the lawsuits brought against tobacco companies by 39 states. The ultimate rip-off by the most diabolical industry of our time.

Fortunately, the press caught the $50 billion give-away in the budget bill and the Senate, which had previously voted for it, was righteously indignant, voting to repeal it 95-3. Although the Senate’s ultimate repeal of the tax-break provision was commendable, the fact that our senators were so easily bamboozled is a prime illustration of their carelessness with our money and of the clout and treachery of the tobacco industry.

As demonstrated so vividly by the tobacco industry and their premier lackeys, Lott and Gingrich, the millions in corporate funds being poured into campaign coffers are not gifts. Very simply, the “contributions” are bribes of our public officials – payments for doing the will of the “contributors” and betraying the public trust – a very lucrative investment when one considers the return.

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