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Time to ask why

Time to ask why

True campaign reform means limiting power, not spending

Every reporter is trained to ask six questions: who, what, when, where, how, and why. The first five of those questions are asked regularly; the sixth is not. Ernest Hemingway once reminisced, "After I finished high school I went to Kansas City and worked on a paper. It was regular newspaper work: Who shot whom? Who broke into what? Where? When? How? But never Why, not really Why."

Conventional news organizations last month belatedly looked into Clinton scandals, as the image of a president renting out the Lincoln bedroom and a vice president directly dialing for dollars became too much to overlook. Post-election, we've begun to learn about what the president knew and when he knew it. But we're getting only half-baked answers to the key "why" questions: Why did Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore go where no men in their positions had gone before? And why does the political system make such tackiness the tactic of choice for those who place success above scruples?

On the first question, we're certainly seeing that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore are the leaders a lie-friendly society deserves. Already this year we've seen abortion industry spokesman Ron Fitzsimmons confess that he lied about the number of partial-birth abortions that occur each year. We've seen five women admit that they were pressured by feminist-fearing Army investigators to cry rape untruthfully. In each case, those who came forward did so because lying bothered them-but what about all the folks who have Kevorkianed their consciences?

The second question is tougher: Why are campaigns financed this way? There is individual culpability, sure. Some new rules may be needed, sure. But there is a more basic problem when even United States senators are beginning to need tens of millions of dollars to run for jobs that pay $133,000. Inquiring minds should be asking: Why all this spending anyway? Why do contributors drop a thousand here and a hundred thousand there?

Many do it because they are making an investment, and they expect the investment to pay off a goodly percentage of the time. In the 19th century Britain's Lord Acton offered his dictum: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power embracing corruption is not new in American history; power attracted bribes even in colonial days. But what we are seeing now, with so much power centralized in Washington, is that enormous power attracts enormous bribes.

The historical record, however, does suggest a solution. In colonial America, royal governors and judges had the power to seize or affect private property through regulation, excessive taxation, and use of eminent domain. Colonial landowners who worked hard to improve the value of their property could see it seized from them in the name of the public good. In that environment, astute citizens often felt they had no choice but to pay off magistrates or officials.

That all changed with the coming of the Constitution. Newly independent Americans asked why bribery occurred, and then refused to ban political contributions. Instead, they limited government power (and bribe-taking potential) through a variety of means. They emphasized, in Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution, that legislators could not pass laws "impairing the Obligation of Contracts." They refused to give federal officials power to grant charters of incorporation, build canals, regulate transportation, establish a national university, or create institutions that furthered literature and art.

Overall, the founding fathers took to heart James Madison's argument that liberty was best protected not by restricting private interests, but by letting them compete freely and then counterbalance each other, so no one would become too powerful. Throughout the United States' first century, court interpretations prohibited states from nullifying private agreements in the name of the "public interest," so there was less reason to bribe officials. Instead of restricting private ability to contribute to campaigns, the founders made it less significant to do so.

Over the years bribery was not eliminated: Given the corruption of human nature, it would be unrealistic to expect that. But bribery on the federal level was contained, and vile administrations like those of U.S. Grant or Warren Harding were the exception. Now, bribery and its kissing cousin, payment for "access," is the rule among Republicans and Democrats alike.

The way out is not today's conventional solution of imposing campaign spending limits, because that also means cutting into first amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, including political speech. The better approach is to ask "why?" and then proceed to decentralization: Less power in Washington, less need to spend big bucks for bribes that by any name smell equally sour.