PERSPECTIVE ON CAMPAIGNS : A Way Off the Merry-Go-Round
No one felt good about the outcome of the “Keating Five” case. Certainly no member of the Senate envied members of the Ethics Committee their task as they attempted to judge the conduct of colleagues in an area where there are no clear rules. The episode did, however, serve an important purpose: It attracted the attention of both the Congress and the American people to a crisis in our political system.
Both the public and members of Congress have sensed a problem for a long time. For us lawmakers, the extravagant demands of financing reelection campaigns encroach on our real job of representing constituents. The average Senate reelection campaign costs nearly $4 million to wage; that means a senator has to raise $12,000 every week of his six-year term to remain in office.
The domination of the fund-raising scene by political action committees and other special-interest contributors further distances a lawmaker from his or her constituency. With virtually unlimited funding available from PACs in Washington, it’s hardly surprising that politicians concentrate fund-raising efforts inside the Beltway rather than in their home states. Grass-roots support for political candidates is in danger of becoming irrelevant.
PACs don’t support candidates; they support incumbents. And they don’t subsidize issues as much as they do access and influence. In the Senate last year, PACs financed incumbents 4-1 over challengers; in the House the ratio was 16-1. PACs aren’t the only source for out-of-state campaign funds. Big-dollar contributors across the country, like Charles Keating, are able to circumvent current dollar limits.
The spiraling financial demands of our campaign system don’t afford candidates many options. Soliciting small contributions from individual constituents when your opponent has filled his war chest at a few Washington PAC cocktail parties or big-dollar fund-raisers in New York, Miami and Los Angeles simply isn’t competitive.
With their Congressmen forced to participate in this big-money chase, courting PACs and special-interest groups, voters are made to feel incidental to the political process. Polls show that Americans don’t believe casting a vote makes any difference. Our democratic system is premised on citizen participation; when that participation drops, the system atrophies.
The first step toward reforming the system is to limit total campaign spending. Contained spending would free members of Congress from servitude to fund-raising and eliminate a good deal of the incumbent’s advantage. It would strip special-interest groups of some of their clout and help restore control to the voters. Just restricting some sources of funds will not work: Political fund-raisers are notorious for finding the most minute and arcane legal loopholes to squeeze money into the system. Only to the extent that we limit total spending can we limit abuses.
While the Supreme Court has ruled that imposed limits infringe upon First Amendment rights, the Senate is considering a bill that would establish voluntary limits for candidates, with incentives to encourage compliance. The bill would abolish PACs and discourage the trend toward mud-slinging campaigns by stipulating that candidates themselves appear in ads. No more hiding behind actors and voice-overs to smear competitors.
President Bush has expressed a willingness to support reform measures; Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a co-sponsor of the proposal, calls the issue a “high personal priority.” But Congress will not reform a system that promotes incumbency unless a groundswell of public opinion compels it to do so. Voters must be prepared to let their representatives know that the system providing power can take it away; that they will be held accountable if they do not act. The success of term limitation initiatives in several states should give members a reason to consider what could happen if Congress does not put its own house in order.
It is up to each of us--citizens as well as members of Congress--to see to that real democracy, through truly competitive elections, is not destroyed by our neglect.