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Wanted: Integrity in Washington


President Clinton's campaign fundraising, which seems to have taken place on shaky ground and in the gray areas of campaign law, has prime coverage in the news these days. Yet, even as the FBI and Congress launch their own investigations into the source of some of his funds, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have put campaign finance reform on their agendas. This is one issue without any gridlock.

Clinton's campaign money came from selling places at dinners where he was the primary figure and from promising intimate coffees at the White House for donors who, incidentally, were also foreign nationals. This is obviously wrong, but the opinion of what constitutes the "primary wrong" differs depending on whom you talk to. The Washington world has focused on the novel "foreign" aspect of this money. To accept money from foreign nationals implies that the recipient will lend an ear to that national's concerns, thereby potentially compromising the president's ability to run our country. But it seems that a much more basic question should result from this faux pas: should our governing officials lend an ear to only those people who can afford to pay?

Paying for access is now a commonplace action. Clinton, after commenting on dubious donations a few weeks ago at a press conference, then proceeded to attend a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser for the Democratic National Party. Only the naive would think either the food or the speech (judging by the impact of the State of the Union address) was the motive for the exorbitant price.

This sketchy behaviour is not the exclusive terrain of Democrats. The Republican National Committee just had a three-day event in Palm Beach. Individuals and corporations who donated at least $175,000 over four years were invited to consort with leading Republican leaders including Sen. Trent Lott (R-Mich.), the majority leader, Sen. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the speaker, and Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee. To give access to and listen to the needs of only those who can pay seems to be a rather odd way of running a democracy.

But the sheer enormity of this issue cries out for it to be addressed in a more serious public forum. The second largest contributor to the Republican National Party the past year was Philip Morris, which gave $1.9 million. With the prominence of the nicotine and tobacco debate, and the increasing contentiousness between lawmakers and corporations that produce tobacco, surely the industry shouldn't have that kind of sway over the Republican party. In fact, the practice is so widespread that recently some Republican Congress members made it clear that they would not listen to any contributors to the Democratic party. I'm sure it applies vice-versa as well. After all, the Democrats haven't aired that soundbite in a television commercial yet.

Yet one may ask, why do we care? In the midst of reading, midterms, and papers, these issues seem very far removed. But this is the world we will soon enter. Even if we aren't going to Washington, decisions made in that city affect us all now. The decisions made in Washington will affect us in a few years the way that Dean Lewis's decisions on candles affect us now--if not more. We must ensure that decisions are made with some degree of integrity, as opposed to the present policy of simply listening to citizens with the loudest jangling of change in their pockets.

When financial record-keeping at some of Harvard's student organizations was shaky, the Administration organized a seminar for all student treasurers to enhance the quality of finances in the organizations. At other campuses, administrators rely on an Honor Code instead of proctors at exams. Above all, college students are assumed to have integrity, and failure to adhere to a certain standard of integrity results in serious penalties. Surely those we trust (at least a little) to run this country can be asked to adhere to a standard of integrity, as well. Otherwise, it seems superficial to expect integrity and honesty of us now. Perhaps I sound a little like Mr. Smith. But Mr. Smith only came to realize the sad truth after he went to Washington. We have the sad honor of being able to decry the lack of integrity from the outside because it is so blatant.

It is true that the political system requires large sums of money from contenders. After all, the only person to make a competitive bid for the presidency outside of the established political parties (at least in '92) is a billionaire with his own financial resources. But the people in the system are accomplices.

How far can financial reform go? If our neighbor to the South is any indication, we have a difficult process ahead of us. Mexico is having significant troubles coping with the corrupt police and government officers that receive kickbacks from the drug cartels to look the other way and, thus, effectively support their actions. We can claim that it won't happen here, that the United States is not the economically impoverished Mexico and, therefore, will not fall prey to bribery. But the United States is morally impoverished enough to provide the market for drugs. The issue at hand is not the level of economic development; it is a lack of integrity.

I have no great solution to offer. But I think common sense would dictate to most of us that we shouldn't concoct policy to fit our donors. But then again, we aren't the ones in Washington.

Tanya Dutta's Column appears on alternate Mondays.

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