Electoral Detox: A Twelve-Step Cure for Donor Dependency

America's elected officials have become addicted to political money, and among the most dependent are members of the United States Congress. Everyone recognizes the more obvious Symptoms: escalating campaign expenditures, growing reliance on political action committees (PACs), incessant solicitations, recurring scandals. But the underlying malady is more dangerous than most lawmakers will admit. Like addiction to alcohol or drugs, it is a disease that attacks both body and spirit.

Many lawmakers would like some changes, but not at any cost to their political party or themselves. Senate Democrats want a ceiling on expenditures that President Bush says he will veto. Bush favors the near-abolition of PACs, which House Democrats reject. The current debate is as bitter as it is shallow, like a fight between drunks over whether black coffee or a cold shower is the better path to sobriety. The odds of enacting serious change remain close to zero.

Money can destroy a democracy absolutely, but the process begins subtly. Plutarch described how it slowly corrupted the Roman republic "The abuse of buying and selling votes crept in and money began to play an important part in determining the elections." Direct bribery of voters, the method Plutarch described, survives today only in a few backward, impoverished jurisdictions. With the rise of television and computers, money gets converted into votes in a more refined way. Yet the practical outcome is the same: candidates with money often win, and those without it almost always lose.

Most of the money for political campaigns comes from organized economic interests, whose role grows larger with each election, subtly disenfranchising ordinary voters and shifting power to economically interested donors. The nation's economy has suffered, too. While Congress listens attentively to the grievances of specific donors, it becomes less attuned to the interests of the public. One example is the way key lawmakers such as House Speaker Jim Wright and the so-called "Keating Five" -- Senators Alan Cranston, Dennis De-Concini, John McCain, John Glenn, and Donald Riegle -- ministered to a few renegade savings-and-loan profiteers, of whom Charles Keating is only the most notorious. Another example is the way Congress failed to see, until too late, the excessive risks to banks and insurance companies posed by junk-bond swashbucklers who recycled a few of their millions as campaign donations.

A certain amount of money has always been a necessity in American politics. But in recent years the role of money has ballooned, while the part played by individuals and political party organizations has diminished. Envelope-stuffing volunteers are less important; direct-mail consultants are more so. A county chairman of 'a party often counts for less than a hired 'TAC director," whose job is to raise money from political action committees by systematically marketing the candidate to economic interest groups. Congressional elections have gone from being labor-intensive to being capital-intensive.

All that money is, perversely, buying a lower quality of politics. It buys poll-takers, consultants, and advertising experts who figure out what the public wants to hear and then tell it to them. Often that translates into empty symbolism, or worse, the politics of trivia, fear, and cynicism.

Congress is becoming more heavily dependent upon special-interest money with each passing election. This is especially true in the House, where members elected last year got an average of 45 percent of their funds from political action committees, up from less than 26 percent in 1976. The lion's share of PACs are sponsored by economic interest groups. The biggest are the National Association of Realtors, which gave $3 million to House and Senate candidates in the last election; the American Medical Association, which gave $2.4 million; and the Teamsters Union, which gave $2.3 million. PACs sponsored by business corporations gave $58 million; those sponsored by trade associations and professional groups gave $44 million; and those run by labor unions gave just under $35 million.

Some partisan and ideological PACs still give heavily, motivated by issues such as aid to Israel, the environment, abortion, and gun control. But the big conservative PACs that once struck fear in the hearts of liberals have faded with the passing of the Reagan era; the National Conservative Political Action Committee itself is $3.9 million in debt and officially "inactive." PAC money is not only increasingly important but more than ever synonymous with economic lobbies.

And it is not just PACs; additional millions pour in from Washington lobbyists, executives of military contractors, real-estate developers, trial lawyers, junk-bond salesmen, and others with a direct financial interest in how Congress votes. Indeed, the special-interest donations of individuals often rival or exceed those of the PACs. Charles Keating himself did not bother with a PAC, which could legally have given only $5,000 per senator, per election. Instead, he often passed the hat among his relatives and company executives. In that way, for example, he raised $78,250 for the 1988 campaign of Senator Riegle, now chairman of the Banking Committee.

Keating's methods are widely employed. A recent study by Public Citizen of giving to congressional candidates in the 1989-1990 election cycle found that individuals in the financial industry -- bankers, S&L executives, stockbrokers, commodity traders, and the like -- gave $12.8 million, while the PACs in those industries gave $11.9 million. Washington-based lobbyists, lawyers, and public relations executives, who hardly bother with PACs at all, gave $19 million directly to candidates.

When it comes to buying access or influence, there is no difference between a $5,000 check from a PAC and an envelope containing checks for $500 each from ten executives of the company sponsoring the PAC. Indeed, the bundled contributions can be worse, because their economic connection is harder to trace than PAC money, and because the aggregate amount can be far greater than the legal limit for a single PAC. During the 1986 tax reform debate, for example, a group of insurance agents selling tax-sheltered policies funnelled more than $250,000 into the campaign of Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, who was chairman of the Finance Committee at the time.

Lawmakers now depend for their political survival on a process that is increasingly difficult to distinguish from criminal bribery and extortion. Federal tax collectors go to jail for taking gifts from accountants, even if no explicit favors are given or promised, on the well-founded theory that any human being will tend to bend for someone who has given money and may thus give more in the future. But the Supreme Court just overturned the federal corruption conviction of a West Virginia legislator, Robert McCormick, for soliciting and accepting a $2,900 payment from a lobbyist whose legislation he was supporting. "To hold otherwise would open to prosecution conduct...that in a very real sense is unavoidable so long as election campaigns are financed by private contributions or expenditures," Justice Byron White wrote for the majority. Unavoidable -- and inherently corrosive.

Because special-interest donors are mainly seeking to sway policy, they give mainly to lawmakers who are already in office (see figure below). Challengers -- the instruments through whom democracy is supposed to express itself -- are being systematically starved for resources.

These are the blackest days for challengers in all of American history. The reelection rate for House incumbents in the last three elections was 98 percent, 98.3 percent, and 96 percent, respectively. There has never been such a string of incumbent victories before. The signs of declining competition are evident even in the Senate, which is much less PAC-ridden than the House. Last year only one senator was defeated, while 97 percent of the incumbents running were re-elected. Incumbents have other advantages, to be sure, but their growing ability to monopolize election resources is proving decisive in more and more cases.

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Ordinary people sense that something is wrong, that they are being cheated. Opinion polls show citizens are restive, cynical, overwhelmingly in favor of curbing the role of moneyed interests. After the 1990 election the National Election Studies poll showed 70 percent of the people surveyed thought "government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves," while only 24 percent said government is "run for the benefit of all the people," and the rest were not certain. The same poll also showed only 28 percent said they "can trust the government in Washington to do what is right" most of the time.

"Increasingly, Americans have come to see their federal government as no longer responsive to their needs," Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine said during recent debate on a campaign-finance bill. "They believe Congress acts to fulfill commitments to campaign contributors, rather than to serve the interests of the people. And they believe we have created a campaign finance system that is stacked against challengers and designed especially to keep self-interested incumbents in office forever."

Like most in Congress, however, Mitchell simply denies what the public believes. "I know the reality is different," said Senator Mitchell. He and most incumbents see only a problem of perception -- "the perception of the American people of our integrity and our quality."

So Congress has yet to take the first, essential step toward dealing with its own addiction. For an alcoholic, the first step to recovery is to admit he or she has a drinking problem. But so far, no incumbent lawmaker has said, "Hi, I'm Congressman Bob and I'm a money addict." Congress is still in what therapists would call the denial phase.

Listen to Senator Terry Sanford, Democrat of North Carolina:

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