Money: the real political organizer

  • Two billion dollars

    Kari Gehring/The Denver Post and Diane Sylvain illustration

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Now about this soft money business. As a descriptive term, "soft money" isn't. It's vague, if not downright misleading, considering that "soft money" is no softer than any other money. So let's approach the subject from another perspective, not as an abstract "issue," but as a case study of a real, living, breathing, and very wealthy human being.

The human being is Philip Anschutz of Denver, the chief executive officer of the Anschutz Corporation, the vice chairman of the board and largest single stockholder of Union Pacific Railroad, part owner of the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, and (in the words of the Oct. 15, 1995, Denver Post) "the richest man in Colorado, with a net worth estimated at $2 billion."

Considering that the Union Pacific is the nation's largest railroad, with 40,000 miles of track in every state west of the Mississippi, it is reasonable to conclude that Philip Anschutz, who made his money the old-fashioned way (he inherited it) is one of the most powerful men in the West, if not the whole country.

But he's managed to keep a fairly low profile. His company, which mines coal, drills oil and gas wells, puts up buildings and owns telephone systems, is privately held, and the 56-year-old Anschutz is rarely quoted in the newspapers. He hasn't called me back, and his secretary said the Anschutz Corp. does not have a public relations official.

On one public document, though, his name stands out, or at least the figure near his name stands out. The figure is $315,000, which is how much the Anschutz Corp. has given to committees of the Republican Party. This does not make Anschutz the biggest soft money contributor of all time. It probably puts him in the top 20.

Anschutz, together with his company and his wife, Nancy, gave a total of $363,750 to the GOP in 1995 and 1996. That other $48,750 went either to specific candidates at or below the legal limit of $1,000 per candidate per race (one for the primary, one for the general), or to political action committees in contributions of $5,000 or less. It's that $315,000 that carries with it the notation, "exempt from limits."

Which gives rise to two questions: (1) Why is it exempt? and (2) What does Anschutz want in return?

Very briefly, the contributions are exempt because they do not go to a candidate. They go to a political party for (theoretically) its more general "party-building" purposes. Before the law was perverted by a combination of legislation, court rulings and administrative decisions, "party-building" was supposed to mean bumper stickers and get-out-the-vote drives. It now means television commercials that stop just short of saying, "vote for Smith." That's why it's "soft."

As to what Anschutz wants in exchange for his generosity, without hearing from him, we can only conjecture. If he had a flack, we'd no doubt get the "Mr. Anschutz is interested only in good government" line, and for this contention there would be some evidence - in recent years, at least, Anschutz seems to have given nothing to the Democrats.

All of his financial interests - railroads, telecommunications, mining - have dealings before regulatory agencies under the sway of a Democratic administration. This particular Democratic administration is not inclined to reject anyone's contribution. So Anschutz's decision to give only to Republicans indicates ideological sincerity.

Still, $363,750 is a lot of money. So it is reasonable to ask what the railroad, petroleum, real estate and communications businesses want from Congress.

A great deal. To begin with, Anschutz's political clout may have been instrumental in getting approval of the 1996 merger under which Union Pacific absorbed Southern Pacific Railroad, which Anschutz controlled. The members of the Interstate Commerce Commission (now the Surface Transportation Board) would not have been eager to displease the then Senate Majority Leader, Bob Dole, a long-time beneficiary of Anschutz political and financial support.

Now the railroads want to make sure Congress does not repeal the federal limits on how big trucks can be. That's because the states would presumably allow bigger trucks which could haul more stuff, and stuff hauled by truck is not hauled by rail.

The railroads also want to keep their exemption from the federal diesel fuel tax, and they oppose the stricter crew safety bills inspired by recent fatal train crashes.

The telecommunications and oil businesses do not have very large agendas before the 105th Congress because they got so much of what they wanted from the 104th.

There was the sweeping telecommunications bill of 1996, shepherded through Congress by Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota, who got the maximum of $4,000 from Anschutz and his wife. He lost anyway.

The oilmen got an end to the prohibition against exporting Alaskan crude. And with little fanfare but a lot of lobbying, they also got a "royalty holiday" for drilling in the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The lobbying was needed because it's hard these days to get anything passed if it's going to cost the treasury money, which tends to be the result when royalties are not collected. In fact, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., pointed out that the Congressional Budget Office estimated the "holiday" would cost $400 million over five years.

Whereupon some of Washington's higher-priced lobbyists convinced key members of Congress that this was not really so, a task perhaps made easier because so many lawmakers were beneficiaries of the $7,768,079 in soft money from oil and gas interests, some 74 percent of which went to Republicans (statistics thanks to the Center for Responsive Politics).

None of which proves either that congressmen are crooks or that Philip Anschutz is a bad guy. On the contrary, even political and business opponents describe him as a nice guy, pleasant and unassuming. His family operates a foundation which may do more good for the world than many government programs.

Furthermore, there is nothing either wrong or new about political clout. Whoever helps elect an official gets said official's ear. Richard J. Daley had no trouble getting into the White House when John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson lived there, less because Daley was mayor of Chicago than because he was Cook County Democratic Chairman.

And who has that job now? Even I, who used to cover politics in Chicago, can't remember, and it makes no difference. Today's real "county chairmen" are the contributors and fund raisers who collect the money to give to the consultants and advertising-writers, who are the new version of precinct workers. The decline of the party organization and the rise of television have obliterated much of the distinction between private and public power.

In a capitalist economy, the wealthy are also powerful, which is fine as long as their power is balanced by the power of those who represent the unwealthy. These days our representatives depend more on the wealthy patron than the skilled organizer of voters or even on the creator of ideas.

This is not Philip Anschutz's fault, but he is not simply more influential than the Republican State Chairman; he might as well be that chairman. He combines the power the chairman used to have with the power the state's wealthiest man always had.

There is no doubt a word to describe this kind of political system. "Democracy" is not that word.

Jon Margolis writes a regular column for High Country News.

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