MEMBERS OF Congress have voted more than $60 billion in Hurricane Katrina disaster relief, with the total estimated to eventually go as high as $200 billion. But that’s (mostly) your money. What about their campaign money?
After all, shouldn’t sacrifice for the vulnerable start with the powerful? So how about this unconventional idea: Washington should call a 90-day moratorium on campaign fundraising, and both parties -- and all congressional incumbents -- should tithe from their campaign funds for Katrina relief.
That means 10% of their war chests should go to hurricane relief, or they should raise that amount and donate it to the relief effort instead of collecting still more for the 2006 campaign battles. While we’re at it, how about extending the moratorium to political action committees and lobbyists and asking them to take what they have budgeted for the politicians and give it to Katrina relief instead.
Washington’s special-interest, lobbyist-loaded, incumbent-entrenched political system may be broken. But it’s certainly not broke. Federal Election Commission records show that the party campaign committees and House and Senate incumbents have more than $400 million with nearly 14 months to go before the elections. Tithing would yield $40 million for Katrina aid, money that otherwise would probably just be used for attack ads.
Are we dreaming? Probably. But it’s obvious that the displaced and destitute evacuees need the money -- and Washington’s politicos don’t. In 2004, 403 House members sought reelection and on average spent just over $1 million to do it. Regardless of party. One million dollars per incumbent seat. Almost two-thirds of them outspent their opposition 10 to 1 or more. Only seven of the 403 lost (and two of those because Texas redistricting forced incumbents to run against each other).
Incumbent protection is the only nonpartisan thing in today’s politics. Both parties benefit; both parties are guilty. Both use redistricting practices at the state level to draw voter-district lines to protect incumbents. Both use special-interest money to keep them in office.
But do the incumbents really need the money? It’s not as if many of their races are close. In terms of percentage of the vote, only two of those 403 incumbent races were as tight as the presidential contest between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry. And the incumbents who ran still had a total of $157 million left over on election day.
If self-protection comes first in Washington, is it any wonder politicians seem so out of touch?
But Washington’s cycle of fundraising and influence-buying and access-selling is just one part of a system badly out of whack. Consider that:
* $2.2 billion was spent on the presidential race in 2004, twice what was spent in 2000, according to the Washington Post.
* Since 2000, the number of lobbyists in Washington has doubled to almost 35,000.
* We know from our own experience that the political consulting profession is increasingly peopled by mercenaries, many of whom work in campaigns just to be able to sell access to those they help elect.
* Many who come to Washington to serve the people tend to stay to serve the special interests.
So maybe rebuilding from the tragedy of Katrina is also an opportunity to rebuild a democracy of selfless public service. How can Washington’s incumbents ensure that political money buys more than insider access? How can Washington’s invulnerable understand the nation’s vulnerable? How can the powerful earn the trust of the powerless?
One starting place is to give of themselves -- donating a potful of their campaign money to people who really need it. And maybe we the voters ought to hold them accountable if they don’t.