The New Pearl Harbor

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the December 6, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259Thirty-nine years ago, the United States government misinterpreted some very clear signals being sent by the Japanese. Depending on your point of view, a very naïve or very calculating Franklin Delano Roosevelt failed to prepare for the growing military aggression Japan would soon unleash upon an unsuspecting United States.

In his best-selling book At Dawn We Slept, Gordon W. Prange maintains the Japanese should have never surprised the American navy in Pearl Harbor. Our leaders, says Prange, had plenty of evidence Japan would attack. He says we had enough advanced warning to get our fleet safely away from Pearl Harbor before the Japanese could strike.

Is Washington – and America – asleep at the wheel again? Pat Choate asks this very question in the Harvard Business Review (Sept/Oct 1990) article, “Political Advantage: Japan’s Campaign for America.” Choate asserts our electoral and legislative system, long designed to promote democracy, may be letting in too many folks (namely foreigners). Furthermore, Choate points specifically to the Japanese and shows they can more adeptly play our own political game.

The Dubious Role of Political Action Committees: Choate brings into doubt the role Political Action Committees (PACs) have in our political process. The influence of PACs can be seen, not only in the election of state and federal officials, but also in the process by which politicians make laws.

PACs are not new. In 1943 – two years after Pearl Harbor – the CIO labor union created the first PAC. Congress broadened the importance of PACs with campaign election reform in the post-Watergate 1970s. At the time, the Democrat controlled House and Senate sought to stifle the influence of “fat cats” (who tended to give to the Republican Party) by limiting individual contributions to $1,000 per campaign.

The Republicans have traditionally been much better at obtaining donations from individuals than have been the Democrats. For example, in 1989, the GOP received $89 million in contributions while the Democrats only received $18 million. PAC money, on the other hand, has traditionally gone to the Democrats. For example, in 1988, the Democrats received $68 million from PACs while the Republicans received only $35 million.

Worse still, approximately 90% of all PAC money goes to incumbents. Throughout their term of office, elected officials play games with lobbyists in the corridors of Congress in search of a greater share of PAC money.

PACs have proliferated since the early 1970s. Business concerns have picked up on what was once solely the domain of labor unions. In 1974, 608 PACs contributed a paltry $12.5 million to friendly politicians. In 1988, on the other hand, 4,828 PACs forked over an earth shattering $151 million to both major and minor political candidates.

Does all this money influence legislation? With sorrow, we must admit that it does. Five senators today stand accused of being unduly influenced by the contributions of failed S&L president Charles Keating. The situation only grows worse.

The Surprising Role of Foreign Influence: It makes sense that Congress has outlawed foreign PACs. After all, does anyone think foreigners can be counted on to look out for America’s best interests? Most assuredly not.

It seems odd, then, as Choate points out, that U.S. subsidiaries of foreign owned companies are permitted to create PACs. This is precisely how the Japanese – and other foreign countries – have done an end run around the intent of the election law. Japanese PACs have astutely hired Americans – former government officials – to lobby for their concerns.

Does it work? You bet it does. PACs slowly get on the good side of politicians by contributing heavily. The lobbyists then use their past relationship (if a former government staffer) and the PACs giving history to gain entry to the politician. Only the personal ethics of the politician determines what happens next. Unfortunately, “personal ethics” and “politician” often doesn’t mix.

Are we headed for another Pearl Harbor? Incumbent politicians have too much at stake to seriously change the election law. They all talk about it, but never seem to really do anything about it. Most voters don’t see how vigorously the PACs lobby on Capitol Hill. Once again, America – both the government and the voters – may be asleep at the wheel.

We see that money drives our political process. It controls who gets elected and what laws get passed. This means the more money PACs can afford to spend, the more influential they’ll be. And who has the most money today – Japan. Clearly, their ability to use that money to influence our political process – whether formally through PACs or informally through economics – must concern every red-blooded American.

What can the Japanese do? Choate provides an excellent example. In 1988, Japanese car makers wanted to reclassify light trucks as passenger cars. They desired the change because light trucks were taxed ten times more than passenger cars. Detroit saw through this strategy and began its own lobbying effort.

The Japanese received the support of 31 Congressmen, 11 Senators, European foreign ministers and finally the Treasury Secretary. The Japanese eventually got their way. The $3 million spent on lobbying save them $500 million in tariffs.

So, in a scene perhaps reminiscent of 39 years ago, Washington fails to see the warning signs of foreign incursion. Will it take another Pearl Harbor before our leaders begin to act responsibly?

Next Week #88: How to Declare War (originally published on November 29, 1990)
Next Week #90: Goodbye My Leather Jacket (originally published on December 13, 1990)

[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]


  1. Chris Carosa says

    Author’s Comment: A couple of contemporary updates come to mind when reading this today. First, substitute “China” for “Japan” and change the economic example and you’ll swear this appeared in some paper’s op-ed column.

    Next, about those PACs. They’ve grown tremendously, and so has their influence. McCain and Feingold tried their hand at it and it failed to pass constitutional muster. Something about free speech and all that. But McCain/Feingold just focused on money, not on the source of the money. There’s no problem limiting the rights of foreign countries when it comes to domestic politics.

    Here’s an idea. How about not limiting the contributions as long as it can be determined the source of funds is 100% pure domestic? Oh, and how about this – everyone starts at zero dollars until, say, forty days before the election. (Why forty days? As “the Coach” once said when I sat next to him on the town board, “If God could wash away all the problems in just forty days, that’s all candidates need when they’re running for election.” By the way, that comment dealt with a new sign ordinance we were passing.) After forty days, any excess money goes to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction.

    How about those apples?

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