In 1897, Hartford (Conn.) Courant editorial writer Charles Dudley Warner coined the now-famous saying, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."
If Warner were alive a century later, he could write an equally correct editorial substituting "campaign finance reform" for "weather."
He would certainly note that Republicans-a bunch not known as slouches in the fund-raising field-are slobbering over the chance to drag the Democratic Party's cash-collection schemes into the open through congressional hearings. No doubt there is a lot to drag, and that doesn't even include President Clinton turning the White House's Lincoln Bedroom into a Ramada Inn.
There are also the White House "coffees" at which small groups of people met with the president, vice president and first lady along with hordes of financial staffers from the Democratic National Committee.
According to a study done by the Boston Globe, there were more than 350 people or companies represented at the coffees, and they donated $27 million during the 1995-96 election cycle. There were numerous healthcare industry people among the coffee-klatchers. The most generous was Robert Elkins, M.D., president of Integrated Health Services, an Owings Mills, Md.-based post-acute-care provider. Elkins and IHS donated more than $500,000 to Democratic groups.
It would be great to have $500,000 to give to anyone. But with all the money pouring in to both parties, doesn't it make you wonder just how much attention any one donor gets?
The American Nurses Association, for example, was one of the first groups to endorse Clinton in both his presidential campaigns. In the last election, the nurses spent 90% of their $816,073 campaign budget on Democrats.
In return, the Clinton administration slashed funding for nurse training programs in its fiscal 1998 budget from $63 million to $8 million.
By comparison, the American Medical Association gave 80% of its nearly $2.6 million campaign budget to Republicans and came out of the Clinton budget with only a $7 billion hit over five years, compared with $33 billion for hospitals and $34 billion for managed-care plans.
So it's clear that giving politicians money doesn't make them your friend. The situation is akin to "donating" money to exotic dancers. Only a fool is surprised that the dancers' friendliness disappears when the show is over or the money runs out.
Lest anyone think Democrats are the only ones benefiting from the largess of citizens seeking good government, it should be noted that the Republicans aren't exactly Times Square panhandlers when it comes to raising money.
Earlier this month, the GOP held a retreat for members of its "Team 100" at a posh Florida resort.
If you have never heard of "Team 100," it probably means you don't have $100,000 to donate to the Republican National Committee. But rest assured, special-interest groups do. The AMA, the American Hospital Association and the Federation of American Health Systems are all members. Even with the apparent excesses of the Democrats' fund raising, Republicans still out-raised them by a healthy margin during the last election cycle.
It's clear that both Democrats, who think they have finally mastered the fund-raising system, and Republicans, who nearly always lead in the money grab, like the current system.
So who really wants campaign finance reform?
Three groups of people.
The first consists of those politicians who never have to run for office again and therefore don't need to raise money. OK, it's not really a group; it's only one person: Bill Clinton. But even Clinton's resolve has to be questioned. Since calling for campaign finance reform, he has attended at least two huge Democratic fund-raisers.
The second group seeking changes in the way politicians raise money consists of people outside the political machinery who have so much money they don't need to raise any more. That means Ross Perot and Steve Forbes.
The third group is the American people, who consistently mention campaign finance reform as a priority. Most voters think the current system smells worse than a pen full of cloned sheep, and they would like to see their political leaders less beholden to rich contributors.
But remember, campaign finance reform starts at home.
When the AFL-CIO spent $35 million on ads supporting Democratic causes in the last election, Republicans called on the rank and file to withhold their union dues. It was an outrage, they said, that dues were being used for political purposes without consent.
Maybe that's not such a bad idea. But if so, it's only fair that it should be expanded to include the doctors, hospitals, home health and post-acute-care providers, shareholders and thousands of other companies and individuals who pay the dues to special-interest groups that become donations to politicians and end up as the annoying political ads that everyone complains about.
Sure, I know everyone will say, as Clinton has, that while they really want campaign finance reform, they aren't willing to unilaterally disarm. That's fine, but next time you want to complain about the system, remember who created the beast and who is feeding it.
And you have to ask yourself, "Am I really getting my money's worth from my campaign contributions?" Only you can answer that question.