Reason for Hope?



excerpted from the book

The Corruption of American Politics

by Elizabeth Drew

The Overlook Press, 1999

The 1998 election saw an acceleration of what's gone wrong in the way our elections are bought and paid for. More than twice as much soft money-over $162 million more-was raised by the two political parties in the 1998 election as in the previous non-Presidential elections, according to figures reported to the Federal Election Commission and compiled by Common Cause. As usual, the Republicans outraised the Democrats in soft money, $96.1 million to $66.2 million. The amounts, of course, don't include the in-kind contributions by the interest groups on both sides.

The most generous contributors of soft money in the 997-1998 election cycle were several labor unions; tobacco (Philip Morris) and communications companies. As for individuals, the biggest donors over the years, through themselves or through their Amway Corporation, were longtime Republican contributors Mr. and Mrs. Richard DeVos. who donated a million dollars to the

Republicans. The runner-up in individual contributions was Bernard Schwartz, chairman of the Loral Corporation, who, as we saw earlier, was already Clinton's biggest contributor and who in February 1998, received a controversial waiver to use Chinese rockets to launch his company's satellites; Schwartz contributed $871,000 to the Democrats for the 1998 election.

According to Broadcasting and Cable magazine, more money was spent on television ads in the 1998 election than in the 1996 presidential election. The amount, $531.9 million, "shatters the previous record set in 1996, when total political TV spending totaled $405 million," the magazine reported. (These amounts didn't include the fees that go to the people who make the ads.) In the last midterm election, the magazine said, "a then-record $356 million" was spent on ads. It's no wonder that the broadcast industry opposes free air time for campaign ads.

The 1998 election produced another onslaught of "issue ads"- most of them attack ads-by the parties, with the Republicans spending far more on them, and by outside groups.

In a switch of strategy from 1996, labor spent far less on ads in 1998 than it had then, this time concentrating on turnout. But despite the efforts on both sides to get their allies to the polls, what actually happened was that the Democrats' decline in turnout from 1994, when it was quite low because of Democratic anger at Clinton, was smaller than that of the Republicans. Overall turnout was an abysmal thirty-six percent-lower than for any midterm elections since 1942.

Because of labor's change in strategy in 1998, less money was spent by candidates to combat their ads-and by other candidates to combat corporate ads-and overall spending by congressional candidates dropped slightly from 1996. But, taken together, spending by candidates and the parties and "independent" groups is believed to have amounted-for the first time-to over one billion dollars.

And more House candidates than ever-one out of every six- spent more than one million dollars on their races. According to a study by Common Cause, seventy-eight percent of those who spent at least that amount won. But what matters is not the amount spent, but what candidates had to do to raise it-in terms of spending time soliciting donors as well as giving special attention to donors-and perhaps returning their favors.

On February 17, 1999, Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, stepped before reporters gathered in his Newark office and announced that he wouldn't run for a fourth term. He said, "A powerful factor in my decision was the searing reality that I would have to spend half of every day between now and the next election fund-raising...I would have to ask literally thousands of people for money. I would have had to raise $125,000 a week, or $25,000 every working day. That's about $3,000 an hour."

Nevertheless, such are the benefits of incumbency that ninety-eight percent of House incumbents who sought re-election, and ninety percent of Senate incumbents, were re-elected in 1998. House incumbents enjoyed a nearly five-to-one advantage over their challengers in overall contributions, and nearly a ten-to-one advantage in PAC money. Senate incumbents raised more than twice what their competitors did, and enjoyed a nearly nine-to-one advantage in PAC money.

After new House Speaker Dennis Hastert took office in early 1999, he offered industry lobbyists audiences-in exchange for contributions to his own PAC. In another innovation, in March of 1999 Tom DeLay instructed his sixty-five deputy whips to raise money for endangered Republicans, including two who had been managers of the Senate trial of the President. And, despite the misgivings of some on the right who now questioned whether it was feasible to pursue their moral and cultural goals through politics, the Republican Party was working to make the impeachment and trial of Clinton a fund-raising tool, even as it tried to reposition itself away from being the party of impeachment.

If the political status quo is to be changed, the advantages of incumbency have to be reduced. This was the purpose of some of the McCain-Feingold bill's provisions that were dropped even before the bill reached the Senate floor: providing free or reduced-cost airtime for candidates who voluntarily limit their spending, and placing limits on overall PAC receipts.

And in a new departure, candidates for the presidential nomination in 2000 have found still another way to evade the limits on contributions to their races ($1,000 for individuals and $5,000 for PACs) by setting up their own PACs and "nonprofit organizations" for which they themselves raised soft money-otherwise banned direct contributions by corporations and labor and unlimited contributions by individuals. These new committees were established in states with lenient laws on soft money. Before, soft money was raised only by the parties. Under the new ploy, the soft money could go directly to the candidates, and could be used for bogus "issue ads."

So now the laws governing contributions to candidates for the presidential nomination, like those covering contributions to the eventual nominees, have been rendered meaningless. On top of that some presidential-candidates considered forgoing the federal funds so as to be free of the spending limits that accompany the receipt of federal funds. That would free the candidates to spend an unlimited amount of hard money-needed to pay for the direct costs of campaigning in addition to a portion of the television ads. If this were done, if a major-party front-runner decided to go that route, shucking off all limits, that would complete the cycle of going back to the Watergate days, and before-when there were no limits at all...

The movement in the states for public financing of state elections, led by Public Campaign, is valuable in itself, but it also gets reflected back in Washington. The people who represent states that have adopted such reform take that into account. And the idea is spreading. In 1998, voters in Massachusetts and Arizona, the two places where reform was on the ballot, approved referendums calling for the adoption of such a system. (Maine and Vermont already had adopted a public financing system.)

There needs to be more education, of politicians, journalists, and interested citizens, on the bogus arguments that some of the reforms under consideration-such as curbs on phony "issue ads," or abolition of soft money-would violate the First Amendment's protection of free speech. These arguments rest on false if convenient interpretations of the Buckley decision. Perhaps more Senators, taking a leaf from the House, can be motivated to do more homework and to show more courage in responding to this argument. It isn't all that hard, as some House members showed in the 1998 debate.

As for specific reforms, abolition of or caps on soft money, and curbing fraudulent "issue ads" remain high priorities. (An "issue ad" provision should be drafted in such a way as to get maximum bipartisan support and so that it can be clearly explained.) A strong argument can be made for public financing of congressional campaigns-along the lines of the original voluntary presidential system before the soft money destroyed it-and more people should be making the case. That's the only way to get it on the agenda over time.

Reformers should overcome their resistance to raising the limit on individual contributions, set at $1,000 in 1974, to at least partially index it to take into account inflation since then. (Today's equivalent of $1,000 would be $3,000.) This is not only reasonable-it would represent no change in real dollars, and it would reduce the amount of time that candidates have to spend raising money-but it might also be useful in trying to reach an overall compromise.

The nexus between campaign finance reform and issues the public says it cares more about should be made clearer. There's an obvious case to be made that the current finance system works against many of these things, and it can also be shown more clearly and dramatically that the current system is quite costly to the individual citizen. The relative power of money in congressional decisions can lead to policy that rewards contributors at the expense of everyone else: certain tax cuts, unwarranted subsidies, special holes in the regulatory system. Among the things that can get squeezed out are money for education and improvements in medical care. This, too, shouldn't be a hard argument to make.

A lot of people who aren't intrinsically opposed to campaign reform-who have nothing to lose from it-brush it off on the grounds, drummed into them by anti-reformers, 'that no reform exists for long. The 1974 reforms lasted through at least two Presidential elections. Reformers should make clear that they do not think any particular set of changes will create a perfect world, or will last forever.

Inevitably, the political operatives will figure out new ways around at least some them. Reformers need to show that they understand that reform has to be seen as a continuous process, constantly watched for what new development needs fixing-and it can be presented that way. This is done in all sorts of other areas, especially in regulatory fields (such as communications, drugs); tax policy is always undergoing change. So, why not in this area as well?

Obviously, the beneficiaries of a broken system will be resistant to fixing that system. The proprietors of the system have their hands on its gears. The only people who can force them to let go are the citizens. In 1998, they went farther toward achieving that than almost anyone had thought possible.

As for the broader, and well-founded, complaints about the political system, as well as campaign finance reform, citizens can have a greater impact on the politicians and government policies than they realize. Politicians are a responsive lot. They do keep their ear to the ground - or to the e-mails, faxes, and phone calls their offices receive on a given issue. They do this even when they know that they are hearing only from the most intensely interested citizens. In a panel discussion in early 1998 about campaign finance reform, two Senators said that there were "few" subjects a year on which they received two hundred to five hundred calls. One of the Senators, Joseph Lieberman, said, "Three hundred calls-that's a lot of calls."

The politicians listen to what is said at town meetings, and they talk about it with their colleagues when they return to Washington. They know in that case, too, that they're hearing from their most intense constituents, but they also are aware that these citizens are the opinion-spreaders, the village communicators, so they pay attention.

To fail to vote out of disgust is to waste an opportunity. Morally, one forfeits one's right to complain.

If people are unhappy with the quality or political bent of their congressman, or feel that the parties' nominees don't really represent their district or state, but simply an organized faction, the answer is to mobilize behind an alternative, get out there and vote and persuade others to vote. This can offset the power of any organized group behind the "unrepresentative" candidate. Primaries for congressional office are notable for low turnout, and candidates can get on the final ballot by default. The next step, of course, is to vote in the final election and mobilize others to do so. Many of these races are turnout fights, and such efforts can determine the outcome.

To dismiss Washington as "irrelevant"-and therefore unworthy of one's attention or efforts-is to overlook the fact that that's where law and policy are made on taxes, medical care, the quality of our air and water, Social Security, the national defense, foreign involvements, the safety of airplanes, abortion, securities regulations, the release of new drugs, gun control, the soundness of our banks, disaster relief, continuing education and training, to name just some. And it's where the state of our schools, housing, transportation, and the overall economy are heavily affected. It's where our national priorities and the tone of our national discourse are set.

Only if the citizens hold their government to account, demand that their politicians meet a higher standard, and that they fix the most fundamental problem in our political system today, might Americans have a government they can feel better about.




Quotations from book

" Are we facing, through what's happened to our campaign finance system and the quality of the candidates, the delegitimization of government."
a Congressman to the author

"A large part of being in Congress is the never-ending chase for money for the next election."
a House member to author

"We should shorten campaigns, and give candidates free airtime.
"The current system is designed to increase the level of skepticism on the part of the voters."
Dick Durbin, Democratic former House member

"Even in a time of tremendous prosperity there is no sense of public purpose - in the presidency or the Congress."
David Cohen, liberal activist in Washington, DC, 1998

"In 1976, the Supreme Court, in the landmark decision Buckley v Valeo, struck down major parts of the broad campaign finance reform law passed in 1974."

The Court did not say that the right to exercise free speech through spending on campaigns was absolute. It said that there were two competing values: the right of free speech in donating or spending money for elections, and preventing corruption in elections. It said that in some instances the interest in preventing corruption justified restrictions on the donation of money.

As of the 1996 election, the post-Watergate reforms - enacted to end the ability of the very rich to buy access, ambassadorships and policy - had been rendered null and void.

Political Corruption

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