LAST week, the age of the political sweetener truly came to fruition. Executives of the company that makes the Sweet N'Low saccharine additive pleaded guilty in New York to charges related to making US$200,000 (HK$1.54 million) in illegal campaign contributions. Using a complicated scheme called 'bundling' to get round limits on individual donations to election candidates, the company's largesse extended to an august crew that included senators Bob Dole and Al D'Amato, and the George Bush re-election bid of 1992. The executives' aim - successful, as it happened - was to influence enough members of Congress to make sure they did not follow through on an oft-touted plan to ban saccharin because of fears it might cause cancer. In the same week, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch made an unrelated but highly apt intervention in the long-running debate on the murky issue of political financing. In his disarming way of thinking ahead of (and at cross-purposes to) the rest of the crowd, Mr Murdoch told a National Association of Broadcasters convention that broadcasters should help clean up the campaign trail by offering free airtime to candidates. Speaking as an owner of the Fox network and other local TV concerns, he said 'we don't need the money' and that such a gesture would help 'get rid of some of the influence of money in politics'. Of course, Mr Murdoch knows a thing or two about the subject, having peddled much influence in capitals such as London and Washington to win the co-operation he needed to make his media empire thrive. But he had a sterling point. By his reckoning, 95 per cent of the cash raised by candidates goes towards buying airtime, and if that sounds like an exaggeration, it is only a small one. It is estimated a staggering US$355 million was spent last year on TV commercials for local and national elections. Mr Murdoch's suggestion, which was predictably shot down by most of his peers at the meeting, goes to the very heart of politicking in the United States: largely because of the competition to put one's message across (and lambaste the opposition) via the most effective medium of all, money is everything. There is no point in even thinking about running for office until you know you can raise the cash to finance it. Dan Quayle and several other Republicans, for instance, pulled out early from the 1996 presidential race because their sensors told them the money would not be there. And every year, amounts involved get ever more surreal. Oliver North and Michael Huffington each spent over US$20 million on their (admittedly failed) Senate bids last year. It is now thought a White House candidate needs in the region of US$50 million to stand a hope of victory in both primaries and the election. Even Americans dulled by the incessant pounding of the political process are irritated that campaigning for the November 1996 race has already begun, more than 18 months away - the reason being that if you don't start raising your cash early, you'll be left at the gate at the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. And so the fund-raising season is already into full, gaudy swing. Mr Dole raised some US$3 million alone last week, with some help from a dinner hosted by Donald Trump. Bill Clinton was at it too: at a Democratic fund-raiser he attended at the home of director Steven Spielberg, couples had to shell out a truly extraterrestrial US$50,000 for admission. One hopes that included wine. Needless to say, the people least inclined to upset the status quo are the beneficiaries: Mr Clinton campaigned on a pledge to pass a bill placing important limits on federal election spending, slamming Mr Bush for having vetoed a similar bill during his term. But when Republican senators fillibustered the bill to death last autumn, White House pressure on members was nowhere to be found. Note too that Newt Gingrich, who also brims with anti-Washington rhetoric, conveniently left the touchy issue of campaign reform off his Contract With America, and there is no sign of any such legislation in the coming year. He may have one eye on his own huge fund-raising machine, centred around political action committees, whose most generous corporate donors have a disturbing habit of cropping up in favourable terms in Mr Gingrich's infamous college history course, and even on the floor of the House. The man who perfected the art of Rent-A-Plug preferred to push a bill calling for limits on congressional terms, when the issue hardly seems to be how long the old geezers hang around the chamber, but rather how the power of political donations infects their behaviour once they get there. Sweet N'Low, anyone?