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.
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: The truth is that members of the U.S. Senate are honorable people. They do not sell their votes. They do not sell their influence. That is the reality. Unfortunately the debate today is driven by perceptions, not reality."
Sanford, a member of the Senate Ethics Committee, told Congressional Quarterly recently that he thinks the Keating Five "didn't do a damn thing wrong." And when Congressional Quarterly reported that Sanford had used campaign contributions to pay himself back a $947,000 loan he had made to his campaign committee to get himself elected in 1986, the Senator did not see anything wrong with that, either. The money that went back into his pocket was contributed by lobbyists, PACs, bankers, and other business executives. Sanford had to be reminded that he had supported legislation to prohibit this much-criticized practice. And Sanford, incidentally, was just elevated to chairman of the Ethics Committee.
The same psychology of addiction is apparent in the House. Representative James Olin, Democrat of Virginia, recently boasted of his restraint when taking PAC funds. "The rule of thumb I have always followed, and I think it is a very good one, is to limit the PAC contributions to not more than what I get from individuals," he said. 'This keeps some balance." However, a look at the record shows Olin's PAC contributions for the 1989-1990 election cycle were actually $139,875, half again as much as the $90,731 he got from individuals. When it comes to PACs, Olin is like an alcoholic who claims his drinking is under control. But why change? His ability to attract business money has helped entrench him so firmly that Republicans did not even bother to run an opponent against him last year, although the district votes heavily Republican in presidential elections.
Addiction can produce disordered thinking, and it is no different with PAC dependency. Olin, for example, says his PAC-money intake has no effect on him. 'There is no way those PACs are going to influence me much because you can't please more than one or two of them at a time if you wanted to," he said. But in the next breath Olin denounced the influence of PACs sponsored by colleagues seeking to advance to leadership positions. "I think that the leadership PACs have been very, very bad in the House," he said. "People in Washington have given out jobs that have essentially bought the votes."
Congress, still in the denial phase, is doing little more than talk about cutting down. Senate Democrats pushed through a bill in May with the main purpose of putting spending limits on Senate candidates, which President Bush announced in advance he would veto. The Senate bill also would attempt to ban PACs, but House Democrats -- who got 53 percent of their own re-election funds from PACs -- disagree strongly. Any bill emerging from a Senate-House conference would likely have separate and different rules for Senate and House campaigns. Bush has also said he would veto any bill that would further "Balkanize" the bewildering array of federal campaign finance rules. "I don't know if anybody takes it seriously," Republican Senator Hank Brown of Colorado said in an interview. 'The assumption on everybody's part is that it will be vetoed, and the veto will be sustained. So if s just an exercise in mutual bashing. It's a shame. There are a lot of things that should be changed." And Steve Stockmeyer, lobbyist for a group of business PACs, agrees. "I just don't see any change in the factors that have brought about deadlock in the past," he says. "There's a lot of symbolism and posturing and hypocrisy."
Devising real reform will take more than addressing a mere "perception problem." So long as a majority in Congress think of their money addiction as a public-relations problem, then public relations solutions are all they will accept. But such band-aids will not cure the money fever, or even fool the public very long.
A consensus is not likely to crystallize around some magical new idea or novel formula. That approach was tried last year when Senate leaders commissioned a blue-ribbon panel of three lawyers and three political scientists, evenly divided among Republican and Democratic appointees, to work up some new ideas that both parties might accept. But their plan pleased neither side and would not have changed things very much anyway. It called for high spending limits without any public subsidies for candidates, higher donation limits for individuals, and only modest limits on PACs. "I have gone back to these experts and said, 'Have you any more ideas?'" Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas said during debate. "So far I have heard from, I think, two. They said they were out of ideas."
A bold reform plan might actually stand a better chance of passage than either the strongly partisan bills seen so far, or some weak cobbling together of whatever marginal fixes command bipartisan support. What follows -- with profuse apologies to Alcoholics Anonymous and all similar twelve-step programs -- are a dozen steps to end the money chase.
Step One: Admit the Problem. The famous "Twelve Steps" of Alcoholics Anonymous begins with this declaration: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable." Many lawmakers do complain about the amount of time they spend raising money. "When we think of the time it takes away from doing the duties we are elected to perform, we know something is wrong," said Senator David Boren, Democrat of Oklahoma. "Members of Congress are becoming part-time public officials, part-time policymakers." But addiction to special-interest money is not just a problem of efficient time management any more than it is just an image problem. Congress has not yet admitted that money is making elections and government unmanageable.
On a partisan level, serious Democrats need to face up to what their quest for business money is doing to their credibility and their chances of regaining the White House. Accepting money from an oil or chemical company may not be a moral compromise for a Republican who sincerely believes in the primacy of commerce, but it is a real ethical problem for a Democrat claiming to stand for governmental controls on pollution. It is also a practical political problem; the watered-down Republicanism that keeps business money flowing to Democrats makes an uninspiring platform for reclaiming the White House. Is it a coincidence that Democrats now treat the idea of full national health insurance as too radical to contemplate seriously? Instead, they offer up a patchwork of health care ideas borrowed from Richard Nixon. Do the millions given by insurance companies, hospital executives, and physicians have something to do with their timidity? Consciously or subconsciously, the money has an effect.
Republicans are farther along toward recognizing the purely practical way that the special-interest money system hurts them. Bush's proposal to ban PACs shows some Republicans have already figured out that business money by its nature goes to buy influence from incumbents, not to fund a GOP revolution. Corporate PACs -- corporate PACs -- gave $17.7 million to House Democratic incumbents in the last election, and a pitiful $1.2 million to Republican challengers who ran against them. Currently, the Republican National Committee's fund-raising appeals read in part like those of Common Cause. "Congress has become a virtual prisoner to the big spending special interests," the party's chairman, Clayton Yuetter, said in a July mailing.
Once both parties concede how they are being hurt, they should find it easier to agree between them that the country is suffering as well.
Step Two: Agree on Goals. Reform needs to accomplish two major goals simultaneously: increasing electoral competition and reducing the grip of moneyed interests on policy. Unfortunately, these policy goals often tug in opposite directions. Special-interest money could be eliminated entirely by simply outlawing all election outlays, removing the need for any donations by setting spending limits at zero. But that would eliminate election campaigns along with the money.
The most important way to increase competition is simply to get more money into the hands of challengers. Their spending does not have to equal that of incumbents; it just has to be enough to allow them to let voters know who they are and what they are trying to say. Despite what too many journalists write and most people intuitively believe, incumbents do not gain a big advantage merely by out-spending a challenger.
Most political professionals now recognize as practical fact what political scientist Gary Jacobson discovered long ago -- that spending is essential for challengers to become known to the public, but has little measurable benefit for incumbents, who are already well known. Indeed, Jacobson found that the more a House incumbent spends the less likely he or she is to win. Probably that is because the incumbents who raise and spend the most are the ones who know they are the most politically vulnerable. What is killing challengers is not so much the spending of incumbents, but their own lack of resources. The trick is to replace special-interest donations with ample supplies of money that carries no strings, such as small contributions from constituents.
A secondary goal, born of political necessity, is that any package of reforms should distribute burdens and benefits fairly equally between the major parties. Anything seen as a partisan power grab is doomed. Other secondary goals should be simplicity and ease of enforcement. They are related: complicated rules are harder to understand, easier to evade, and more prone to springing loopholes.
Step Three: Enact Public Financing. Because they carry no strings of special-interest obligation and would provide aid to cash-starved challengers, public funds advance the fundamental goals of reform. But to a Congress in the denial phase, public funds are about as appealing as a glass of water to a drunk on a bender. In May, for example, the Senate soundly rejected an amendment that would have used public funds to pay for 90 percent of the cost of Senate general elections. It drew support from only thirty-nine Democrats, and was opposed by sixteen Democrats and all forty-two Republicans who voted. In the House, Democrats are also divided on public funding, and Republicans solidly opposed. Bush says he intends to veto any bill containing "taxpayer financing" of congressional campaigns.
The idea of public financing is gaining support among the public. A 1990 Greenberg-Lake poll showed, for example, that 58 percent of those polled thought it a good idea to give candidates a fixed amount of federal money and bar all private contributions. It was the highest level of support for the idea since Watergate days. Only 33 percent thought it a poor idea. But that is a more radical plan than anyone in Congress is proposing.
The Senate Democratic leadership pushed through a bill on May 23 containing a pitifully small amount of public money for Senate campaigns -- perhaps $25 million, compared to the $180 million spent in all Senate campaigns last year. Yet five Democrats voted against it, four more than opposed a similar bill in the previous Congress. Democrats are so nervous about public financing that they will not speak its name. Their bill would not provide Treasury Department checks to candidates, the way the presidential system does. Instead, it would provide government vouchers that could be used for the purchase of radio and television advertising time.
Indeed, if it were not for the Supreme Court, the Democrats' bill might contain no public financing at all. What Democrats desire most strongly is a law to limit the spending of congressional candidates. But they cannot have that without giving public funds to candidates in return for accepting the limits.
That is because the Court in its 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision took the dubious position that in politics, money is speech. Actually, money is more like a megaphone than speech; those with more money can speak more loudly than those with less. Spending limits do not affect the content, only the volume. Nevertheless, the Court ruled that spending limits are an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech unless candidates accept them voluntarily in return for public funds or other inducements.
Republicans, meanwhile, attack even weak public funding as just another Democratic entitlement program for the least deserving of all pressure groups: "food stamps for politicians." Last April, for example, the Senate Republicans' point man on the campaign finance issue, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, proposed killing public funding of presidential elections to spend $50 million a year more for child nutrition. "That is a lot of school lunches," McConnell said.
But the GOP attack is both hypocritical and against the best interests of the party's own candidates. Hypocritical, because the Republican Party has never refused taxpayer subsidies for its national nominating conventions, and no GOP presidential candidate except John Connally has ever refused them either. In July the party deposited a federal check for $10,600,000 to finance its 1992 convention in Houston. Ronald Reagan accepted $89,741,125 in public funds for his three presidential campaigns, and George Bush has taken $60,149,962 for his -- so far. Bush even checks off the box on his federal income tax returns every year designating $2 of the Bush family's tax money for public financing. Furthermore, public financing probably would help the GOP most because it has more of the challengers. "In terms of the impact of public financing, it probably would be a net plus for Republicans," says Senator Brown.
Republican lawmakers are even out of step with their own rank-and-file constituents. The Greenberg-Lake poll showed that among the public, Republicans like the idea of replacing private funds with public money just as much as Democrats. Furthermore, self-identified conservatives liked it as much as liberals. And that should not be surprising. A Republican President, Theodore Roosevelt, proposed the idea first.
Step Four De-emphasize Spending Limits.Republican lawmakers are on more solid ground when they attack the concept of spending limits in congressional campaigns. For one thing, limits have simply collapsed in presidential campaigns. Walter Mondale got around them using phony "delegate committees" in 1984. And last time, Bush and Michael Dukakis both raised scores of $100,000 donations and spent tens of millions of dollars outside the limits, running the so-called "soft money" through state-regulated political party accounts. "Spending limits are like putting a rock on Jello," McConnell observes. 'The Jello just oozes out to the side."
If set too low, limits would certainly hurt challengers and reduce electoral competition even further. But if set high enough to allow competition, they would do nothing to curb dependence on special-interest money. After much internal wrangling, Democrats have settled on fairly high limits. The Senate-passed bill provides a limit of about $11.1 million for a California Senate race, for example, counting various exemptions. That is not much less than the $13 million spent there by Republican Pete Wilson, who won the state's most recent Senate race in 1988. In the House, Democrats are talking about a limit of $600,000, well above the median amount spent by winning challengers in recent elections: $469,000 in 1990, $517,000 in 1988, and $435,000 in 1986.
To be sure, the idea of limits is popular with a public sickened by negative advertising and shallow, thirty-second commercials. They equate high campaign spending with low campaign quality. In a Louis Harris poll last year, 82 percent of the respondents said they favored spending limits combined with other provisions in the Democrats' bill. So Democrats have made limits the Holy Grail of campaign finance reform. "The only meaningful way to reform the Senate election finance system is to have limits on campaign spending," said Senator Mitchell. "Anything less than that avoids the real issues and simply creates the appearance of reform." But both sides should realize that limits, provided they are set high enough and indexed for inflation, are just harmless political sugar-coating, not real medicine.
Step Five: Loosen Party Limits."The best way to get more resources to cash-strapped challengers is to increase the limits on what the two parties can give to their candidates," said Senator Dole. "We ought to be strengthening, not weakening, the one institution that has a vested interest for removing incumbents, the two political parties, Democrat and Republican." Dole has a point. One of the worst features of the current regulatory scheme is that it limits the amount of money that political parties can spend on behalf of their own nominees. The law limits the Democratic and Republican campaign committees, after the most recent adjustment for inflation, to about $63,000 in direct aid to each House candidate. For Senate candidates the maximum aid varies with population, from $123,000 in the fourteen smallest states to about $2.4 million in California. These sums are only a fraction of the cost of a serious campaign, so as a practical matter the election law forces candidates to rely more on moneyed interests than on their own party organizations.
Democrats oppose change, however. They rejected a plan offered by Dole to let parties give more aid to challengers by matching, dollar for dollar, whatever early contributions are raised by the candidates from within their own state. This "seed money" plan would have allowed parties an extra $150,000 each for House challengers and $250,000 each for Senate challengers. The reason is pure partisan self-interest: Republican Party organizations still raise a lot more money than the Democrats.
Step Six: Strengthen Party Finances.Strong national parties do not have to be big Tammany Halls. Party money can be just the, sort of small donations, publicly disclosed, that everybody says they want. After Watergate, Republicans learned how to raise huge amounts of this clean money through the mail. Thanks in part to Ronald Reagan's popularity, millions of gifts in the $25 to $50 range poured into GOP coffers year after year. But now their donor lists are not working as well, and Democrats are catching up. Republican Party organizations raised nearly five and one-half times more than the Democrats for their federal accounts in 1981-1982, but raised only two and one-half times more during the election cycle just ended.
Some propose filling party coffers by loosening limits on donations by wealthy individuals, or even corporations, labor unions, or PACs. But these ideas go in the wrong direction and would encourage party officials to return to the days when they acted as political money launderers, passing through special-interest contributions that would either have been illegal or politically embarrassing for candidates to accept directly.
Unfortunately, Democratic Party organizations are already becoming increasingly reliant on special-interest money. Most of their money comes from a combination of PACs, lobbyists, real estate developers, and business executives. Their small-donor efforts have never done very well, partly because direct-mail fund-raising is much more expensive than soliciting contributions from PACs, lobbyists, and the wealthy few.
The simplest way to aid the parties is through direct subsidies, as is done in some European democracies. A modest start might be made by requiring both parties to convert their convention subsidies into a trust fund to aid their challengers in House and Senate elections.
Another, possibly less controversial idea is to set up a system for the efficient collection of voluntary contributions, modeled after the enormously successful payroll check-off systems that the Teamsters and United Auto Workers unions and others won for themselves through collective bargaining. Union members who wish to support the PAC simply fill out a form requesting their employer to withhold, say, $1 or $2 per week. A similar system for the parties could yield tens of millions of dollars annually, a steady stream of income without special-interest obligation. Employers would remit the voluntary donations to the Internal Revenue Service along with the money they already withhold for income taxes, Social Security, and Medicare. And only the IRS needs to know which party the employee is supporting.
The check-off idea has received little attention since I first proposed it in 1988. To succeed, it would require parties to work hard at persuading rank-and-file workers to give money. But it would be a much cheaper way than direct mail for parties to develop broad financial support.
Step Seven: De-fund the PACs. Currently, President Bush is calling for eliminating the ability of corporations, trade associations, and labor unions to subsidize the administration of PACs. Only the PACs that could support their own fund-raising and administrative costs from the voluntary donations of members would survive, and even those free-standing PACs would see their donation limits cut in half. The President's proposal would force a large number of PACs out of existence, because the voluntary contributions they receive do not equal the corporate or union funds spent to collect them. The President's proposal is the strongest one that stands any chance of surviving in the courts. It should be enacted.
Senate Democrats have tried to one-up Republicans with a hypocritical ploy that would preserve corporate and union PACs. Nominally, it calls for outlawing all PAC donations, but this is guaranteed to be overturned in the courts because it would criminalize even PACs that are not subsidized out of corporate or union treasury money, such as groups supporting Israel, gun control, or the environment. The courts will overturn any limit on political activity by voluntary associations as a violation of the First Amendment. Consequently, the Democratic bill has a "fallback" provision cutting down donation limits for all PACs and restricting Senate candidates from accepting more than 20 percent of their election funds from PACs. But the winners in last year's Senate elections got just 25.6 percent of their funds from PACs anyway.
House Democrats, on the other hand, collected 53 percent of their re-election funds from PACs, and they want even less change. A leading proposal would allow House members to raise up to $200,000 per election from PACs.
Step Eight: Close the "Soft Money" Loophole. Some really big money is back in presidential and Senate campaigns, thanks to the "soft money" loophole. It should be closed. President Bush dispensed ambassadorships -- to Spain, Australia, Britain, France, Switzerland, and Barbados -- to elite members of his 'Team 100" club, who gave $100,000 each to finance the 1988 Republican ticket. And in last year's Senate elections, newspaper heiress Mary Bingham wrote a check for $230,000 which Democrats used to buy television commercials aiding their Kentucky candidate, Harvey Sloane.
The problem here is that many states never outlawed corporate or union money in state and local elections, as the federal government did years ago for presidential, Senate, and House elections. Also, federal limits on donations from wealthy individuals do not apply to money given ostensibly to state candidates or state party organizations for use in non-federal elections. So parties have taken to funneling big money into state coffers for such things as voter turnout campaigns and "generic" broadcast advertisements that ostensibly benefit both federal and non-federal candidates on the same ticket. Such party-building expenditures, of course, could be applauded if they were financed entirely with money raised under the federal limits and fully disclosed. That is what should be required.
Step Nine: Enact Tax Credits. There is already wide support in both parties for giving dollar-for-dollar tax credits for small donations to congressional candidates, especially donations that come from within a candidate's own state. Credits ought to be allowed for small donations to political parties, too, to further encourage them to broaden their financial bases. Donors giving, say, $100 could get the money back when they file their tax returns the following year. It is public financing, but without the bureaucracy or any government formulas for disbursing the funds. Citizens would decide directly which candidates or parties get the subsidy. Republicans do not object to this proposal as they do to sending Treasury checks to candidates. Indeed, a tax-credit measure cleared the House with bipartisan support in 1986 before being discarded in a Senate-House conference on the tax reform bill.
It should not be much of a problem to find the money for tax credits, or for direct public funding, for that matter. True, new budget rules require lawmakers to come up with new taxes or offsetting spending cuts to pay for any new spending or revenue-losing measures they propose. Senate Democrats floated the idea of eliminating business tax deductions for Washington lobbyists to raise an estimated $100 million yearly, or $200 million per election cycle. That alone might be enough; the total amount spent by all congressional candidates combined in 1989-1990 was $445 million. Some House Democrats want to tax political action committees, but that is a pale alternative to getting rid of them entirely. Imposing a slight millage on all advertising would spread the burden more broadly over an industry the public sees as profiting from campaign commercials anyway.
Congress could also reduce its own free mailings or cut the jobs of all Senate and House employees who now solicit campaign contributions. Or, how about a tax on political consultants? Negative political advertising? As amusing as it is to think of deserving targets, the soundest approach would be simply to take the money from general revenues and suspend the requirement for finding offsets.
Step Ten: Commandeer Cheap Commercials. To reduce the cost of campaigning, thereby making it easier for challengers to get their message to voters, Congress should require radio and television stations to sell commercial time to Senate and House candidates at half price. Such a plan is part of the bill already passed by the Senate, and it drew surprisingly little opposition. It is hard to find lawmakers who do not think they have been gouged by their local stations, which tend to charge premium rates in the weeks just before an election. The National Association of Broadcasters is not putting up much of a fight. It countered with a plan to provide one free commercial for every two that are purchased. Political advertising, which is highly seasonal, only accounts for an estimated 1 percent of broadcast revenues anyway.
Even at half price, television would remain out of reach for about half of all House candidates. For them, mail is the preferred advertising medium and half-price postage is the way to cut their costs. This is yet another form of public financing, but one that many Republicans find ideologically acceptable. Also, subsidizing candidates' mail would make it easier for them to prospect for small political donations.
Step Eleven: Improve Disclosure and Enforcement. If it were not for public disclosure, lawmakers might be even more inclined to do official favors for campaign contributors. "I just had somebody come in last week that I want to help," recalled Senator Alan Dixon, Democrat of Illinois. "I called in my people and I said, 'Has that person given me a campaign contribution?' and they said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Put everything in writing.'"
But disclosure needs improvement, especially if PACs are eliminated and moneyed lobbies react by increasing their bundling of individual donations. Public Citizen, in its survey of large contributions to last year's congressional candidates, counted $30 million from donors whose employers and occupations were not disclosed at all. Candidates should be required to list occupation and employer for every donor of $200 or more, or give the money back.
Also, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) should be required by law to computerize all donors to enable researchers to make sense of the millions of pages of raw data. The FEC puts all donors on computer now, but for years it omitted all donors of under $500 to save money on keypunching, thereby missing millions of dollars. And it once suspended computerization entirely during a budget pinch, saying the law did not require any such data entry.
The FEC's commitment to disclosure is so ambivalent, in fact, that it is currently seeking fines from at least two different organizations for the offense of offering commercial computer processing of donor data. The law forbids making "commercial use" of donor names, except by news organizations. This was intended mainly to prevent professional fund-raisers or name list brokers from pirating the valuable donor lists of candidates or political parties. But the FEC, at the request of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has gone to federal court to prevent private companies from selling computerized donor information to public interest groups, academic researchers, or even news organizations, even when lists of donor names are stripped of street addresses and therefore useless as a mailing list. Congress should stop the FEC from this sort of nonsense by repealing the "commercial use" restriction, or at least narrowing it to apply only to those who actually pirate names for the specific purpose of soliciting donations or selling merchandise.
Step Twelve: Recognize a Higher Power. Among the steps toward recovery in the Alcoholics Anonymous program is accepting that "a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." For a politician, that higher power is the electorate, the American people.
One way Congress could show a change of heart would be to require that House and Senate candidates meet their election opponents in at least three or four public debates sponsored by bipartisan or nonpartisan entities. This would not only be a sign of respect toward voters; it would as a practical matter provide loads of free publicity to challengers and favor those candidates with something more to say than will fit in a thirty-second commercial. Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, proposed such a requirement, but only for presidential candidates. 'The American people are smart and wise enough to be able to evaluate the quality of that exchange," he said. "It would not be limited to just what they see in a burst of highly emotional, visual images on their television screen." But many senators resisted. "It is a matter of deciding on political strategy," said Senator Boren. "There are circumstances in which you simply might not want to enter into a debate with your opponent." Senator Graham's proposal squeaked by, 44 to 43, and certainly would have failed had it applied to House and Senate candidates.
Many alcoholics seek help only after the shock of "hitting bottom," a divorce, a frightening accident while driving drunk, or being fired from a job. For Congress, the Jim Wright and Charles Keating traumas have apparently not been enough. But the pathology of addiction is such that something worse is likely to follow.
Indeed, 1992 will bring an orgy of political fund-raising because of the conjunction of a decennial reapportionment, a uniquely expensive set of Senate races, and a presidential election. The soft-money loophole will allow an escalating bidding war for wealthy donors. Unless Congress takes the pledge soon, the twentieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in could easily see the return of the $l-million fatcat, another increase in special-interest dependency, and a further erosion in public trust.
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