Among the least-discussed numbers from November 5 is $184 million–the amount by which Republican national committees out-spent their Democratic equivalents. And with President Bush loudly beating his war drums, who heard any discussion about the escalating cost of campaigns? Spending in the New York and Pennsylvania gubernatorial elections, for example, tripled within one election cycle.
The evidence that money shouts is mountainous: Ninety-four percent of the time, the bigger-spending Congressional candidate wins–and 98 percent of House incumbents win. The average price of a House seat rose from $87,000 in 1976 to $840,000 in 2000. It cost Ken Livingstone 80 cents a vote to win the London mayoralty last year, compared with Michael Bloomberg’s $100 a vote in New York City.
As money metastasizes throughout our political process, the erosion of our democracy should be evident to left and right alike:
§ Special Interests Get Special Access and Treatment. While members publicly and indignantly deny that big contributions often come with strings attached, all privately concede the obvious mutual shakedown–or as one Western senator told me, “Senators are human calculators who can weigh how much money every vote will cost them.” Two who violated the usual senatorial omertà gave dispositions in the federal district court arguments on the McCain-Feingold law earlier this month. “Who, after all, can seriously contend,” said former Senator Alan Simpson, “that a $100,000 donation does not alter the way one thinks about–and quite possibly votes on–an issue?” Senator Zell Miller bluntly described the daily conversations from fundraising cubicles: “I’d remind the agribusinessman I was on the Agriculture Committee; I’d remind the banker I was on the Banking Committee…. Most large contributors understand only two things: what you can do for them and what you can do to them. I always left that room feeling like a cheap prostitute who’d had a busy day.” The access that money buys, of course, doesn’t guarantee legislative success, but the lack of it probably guarantees failure.
After 9/11, for example, many legislators thought the argument for energy conservation and reduced dependence on Middle Eastern oil was obvious. So Senators John Kerry and John McCain were stunned when their effort to increase fuel-efficiency standards failed 62 to 38–with the average no vote getting $18,000 in donations from auto companies and the average yes vote only $6,000. One senator insisting on anonymity said: “That vote was one of the most politically cowardly things I ever saw in the Senate. We know how to be energy-efficient, and it starts with cars.”
§ Fundraising Is a Time Thief. Imagine if someone kidnapped all candidates for state and federal office for half of each day. The story would be bigger than Gary Condit, and would surely lead to calls for tougher penalties against political kidnapping.
Well, there is such a culprit. It’s the current system of financing political campaigns, which pits each candidate in a spiraling “arms race,” not merely to raise enough money but to raise far more than any rival. One Midwestern senator complained, “Senators used to be here Monday through Friday; now we’re lucky to be in mid-Tuesday to Thursday, because Mondays and Fridays are for fundraisers. Also, members loathe voting on controversial issues, because it’ll be used against you when you’re raising money.”