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
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
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
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
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
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.