Richard Reeves

The Dance of Dollars on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON -- There are two newspapers here that cover and cater to members of Congress. The oldest is Roll Call, which began publishing in 1955 and is edited by Mort Kondracke, now a familiar face on television. The newcomer is The Hill, whose founding editor, Martin Tolchin, is retiring after guiding the paper for nine years.

Business is good for both of them. Each began as a weekly, and now Roll Call publishes three times a week and so will The Hill by the end of the year. They are choking on advertisements from corporations and "special interests" trying to reach representatives and senators with their version of the truth, which rarely encompasses the whole truth. The reporting, though, is true and often amazing, because both papers are really there as internal newsletters, where people who run the country can talk to each other in ways they would never dare at home.

I picked up The Hill the other day to read about Marty Tolchin's retirement. We were, years ago, colleagues and friends at The New York Times, succeeding each other as city hall bureau chief and then chief political correspondent. He is the best, and I wanted to see what he had wrought.

After flipping through full-page advertisements -- billboards for interests that want an enriching word or comma in legislation -- for Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, LexisNexis, the American Hospital Association, the Coalition to Protect America's Health Care, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association and such, I came upon a story that could make you throw up.

Alexander Bolton, a Hill correspondent, wrote about what happens to candidates who were expected to lose. Or to be more precise, he interviewed surprise winners about their campaign debts. The headline was "Special Interests Scramble to Make Amends." This was the lead paragraph:

"Corporate political action committees (PACs), trade associations and other special-interest groups are scrambling to make amends with candidates they declined to support before Election Day but who won nevertheless."

Example: Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who defeated a Democratic incumbent, could not get his phone calls answered by Northwest Airlines before the election. After the election, he was invited to meet with the airline's president and several other executives. Now he expects Northwest's PAC to join with nine other political action committees to help retire his campaign debt of $115,000.

Says Kline: "PACs that did not participate in the general election are saying, 'Now we want to help retire you debt.' ... Now they are glad to help, and I'm glad they are."

Example: Rep. Max Burns, a Georgia Republican, through his chief of staff, Chris Ingram, says: "They (PACs) were apologetic. Once you are the winner, people are more receptive and want to work with you ..."

Example: Rep. Tim Bishop, a New York Democrat with campaign debts of more than $100,000, through his spokesman, Doug Dodson, says: "A lot of people who didn't give to us say they now want to give to our debt retirement. ... It is much nicer when you can get your telephone calls returned all the time."

Example: Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Florida Republican with a $70,000 campaign debt, was represented by her chief fund-raiser, who told The Hill: "There are some people who have been incredibly generous. They stayed with the incumbent because that's who brought them to the dance. Now it's our turn."

So the dollar dance goes on and on. It's not about how you play the game, or about party or ideology; it's about incumbency and winning. If you can get to Washington, there are plenty of people around here who will pay your way. That's the way it really is on the Hill. If you don't like that, citizen, call up your member of Congress. See if your call is returned.

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