Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias With passage of campaign finance reform all but assured in the Senate, opponents are looking for ways to defeat the bill in the House or in negotiations between the two chambers.

It's easy for even the most patriotic among us to dismiss this latest round of action on Capitol Hill. Washington, DC, after all, is so far removed from South Dakota.

And let's face it. If Congress is successful at enacting true campaign finance reform, it is easy to conclude that it will mainly affect wealthy unions, corporations and individuals that contribute soft money to candidates. South Dakota isn't known as a particularly wealthy state.

Should we really care about some of the large corporations that try to influence our political system through soft money contributions?

Consider this:

1) South Dakota has the highest rate of high school girls who smoke in the nation, according to a surgeon general's report released last week. The report indicates that 45.5 percent of teen-age girls in the state � about 14,000 youths � smoke. Another 2,000 South Dakota girls use smokeless tobacco, a rate surpassed only by Alaska and Indiana.

Women now account for 39 percent of smoking-related deaths across the nation, a proportion that has more than doubled since 1965, according to the report released by Surgeon General David Satcher. Increased tobacco industry marketing, Satcher said, threatens to derail recent progress in fighting the killer habit.

2) It's not too big of a stretch to say that higher smoking rates may be linked to soft money campaign contributions.

A publication titled "The 1997 People's Annual Report: The Human Toll of Corporate Influence Peddling," put out by INFACT is particularly chilling.

INFACT is a Boston-based 20-year-old watchdog group that collects information on corporate accountability and the lack thereof. Here's just a small sampling of its report of the 1997 activities of Philip Morris:


* $3.9 million � Amount of PAC money and soft money contributed in the 1995-96 federal election cycle.


* 90 � The number of registered federal lobbyists in 1997.


* 150 � The number of registered lobbyists in 44 states in 1996


* $2 million � The amount contributed to the Republican Host Committee in San Diego for the Republican National Convention.


* $135,151 � The amount Rep. Tom Bliley, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, received in PAC contributions from 1985 to 1996. Said Bliley: "I don't think we need any more legislation regulating tobacco."


* $12.4 million � The amount spent lobbying at the federal level in the first six months of 1996.


* 60 percent � Marlboro's share of the U.S. youth market.


* 3:1 � The ratio of cigarette advertising's effect on kids to its effect on adults.


* $96 million � Philip Morris' U.S. advertising budget for Marlboro cigarettes.


* $112 million � Philip Morris' operating profit from illegal sales to American teenagers in 1995.


* $5.4 billion � Philip Morris' operating profit in 1995 (fourth in the Fortune 500).


* 460,000 � The number of new teen smokers whom Philip Morris addicts each year, 153,000 of whom will die from tobacco-related illness.


* $23 billion � The share of U.S. health-care costs that Philip Morris should pay annually to treat tobacco-related illnesses (based on market share).

Even though this data is about five years old, our research shows that the tobacco industry continues to wield a mighty influence over our political system.

Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco still have an enormous capacity to influence public policy at all levels. In the 1997-1998 election cycle, Philip Morris continued to hold its spot as the largest soft money donor.

And, just in case you've wondered, soft money is illegal under federal law. It flows through a loophole that has developed in recent years to provide candidates, contributors and political parties a means to evade federal contribution limits and source prohibitions. Soft money contributions in the past two years amounted to $480 million.

Since 1907, federal law has prohibited corporations from contributing any money to federal campaigns. The prohibition on labor union funds dates to the 1940s. Federal law also limits an individual to contributing no more than $1,000 to a federal candidate per election, and no more than $20,000 to a political party

per year. The parties then spend their money on activities that affect federal campaigns.

To evade these restrictions, soft money contributions are given by individuals, corporations, unions or others to designated "non-federal" accounts of the national political parties.

There are course some people who think soft money is, well shucks, the American way to do business. People like Don Tyson, senior chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, Inc.

"The business of politics consists of a series of unsentimental transactions between those who need votes and those who have money ? a world where every quid has its quo," he said a few years ago. I guess Tyson's thinking about this issue really doesn't matter to South Dakotans, either. I mean, his operations are based in Arkansas, far away from South Dakota.

Oh, but wait a minute. Tyson just backed out of a deal to purchase IBP, located at Dakota Dunes. Perhaps his business practices have been tainted by his views of the business of politics.

Even here in the relative calm of the Midwest, we're not immune from the harms of soft money. Reforms are needed.

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