AUSTIN, Texas -- There may yet be some instructive points to be mined from the New Hampshire primary. Perhaps the most important of these is that George W. Bush is not the front-runner because he is the most able or effective candidate. He is the front-runner because he raised so much money early.

He is not the front-runner because he has a splendid record as the governor of a large state. (He has been a so-so governor of Texas, a record that qualifies him to be lieutenant governor of Texas -- which, as all Texans know, is the more powerful office.) He is the front-runner because he has $70 million in his campaign kitty.

And thereby hangs a tale. He has already spent $37 million, which is almost as much as the Democratic nominee will have to spend on his entire campaign up to Election Day, since the D will abide by spending limits in order to qualify for federal matching funds. Bush has raised so much money that he's well beyond needing federal funds and their accompanying limits.

Where does Bush's money come from? Most of it is from a loophole in the campaign finance laws called "bundling." In theory, individual contributors are limited to giving $1,000 to a candidate (soft money contributed to a political party has no limits).

How does bundling work? Take Vinson, Elkins -- the Houston law firm and lobbying power in Washington. V-E the law firm can't give anything to Bush. But two senior partners are Bush "Pioneers," each committed to raising $100,000 for W.

According to an article by Michael Isikoff in the Jan. 24 Newsweek, the two Pioneers arranged for their partners, associates and the spouses thereof to contribute a total of $185,000 to Bush's campaign. Some contributors give $1,000 in the names of their small children or grandchildren. Newsweek also reports that at the annual meeting of FirstEnergy Corp. in Ohio, the company's general counsel got up and made a pitch for Bush and then passed out donation forms. Within a few days, he had $72,000 for Bush, all of it "strictly voluntary."

Newsweek reports that FirstEnergy was recently sued by the Environmental Protection Agency on grounds of violating the Clean Air Act. As Texans know to their cost, Bush favors "voluntary" compliance with clean-air standards.

This form of bundling leads into a larger form of bundling, by industry. The Bush campaign has assigned "tracking code" numbers to trade associations so it can keep track of contributions by special-interest groups -- as in $500,000 from the food-marketing industry, $350,000 from the chemical manufacturers, and $1 million from oil. Must be hard to know whether to put the V-E contribution under energy, banking or gambling, since V-E lobbies for all three.

Another quite extraordinary article in the February issue of Harper's magazine by Joe Conason, one of the best investigative reporters in the country, reports not only on Bush's old and odd financial dealings in oil and baseball but also has a breathtaking account of the "privatization" of about half of the University of Texas System's Permanent University Fund and how it has been consistently used to benefit an interconnected web of major Republican donors. (R.G. Ratcliffe of the Houston Chronicle also deserves credit for ground-breaking reporting on this story.)

Now add to these two articles a piece in the Feb. 7 Time by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, the best investigative reporters in the country, on what exactly political contributions buy and what exactly they cost you.

Barlett and Steele conclude that the country is divided into first- and second-class citizens. The 200 million citizens and millions of corporations that don't give campaign contributions suffer the following:

  • "You pick up a disproportionate share of America's tax bill."
  • "You pay a higher price for a broad range of products, from peanuts to prescription drugs."
  • "You pay taxes that others in a similar situation have been excused from paying."
  • "You are compelled to abide by laws while others are granted immunity from them."
  • "You must pay debts that you incur while others do not."
  • "You are barred from writing off on your tax return some of the money spent on necessities while others deduct the cost of their entertainment."
  • "You must run your business by one set of rules while the government creates another set for your competitors."

Barlett and Steele give case studies on all these inequities. And this is why we think campaign finance reform matters more than education, health, abortion, jobs and all the other issues. Because until we end this corruption, we're not going to get policies that treat us equally under the law.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.