The Evil of Access

The Evil of Access

Campaign finance reform can succeed–but only if the pressure stays on.


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.”

Candidates start to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, trapped in a daily, stultifying repetition they can’t escape. As a mayoral candidate I made 30,000 phone calls (that is not a misprint) over two years to lists of potential donors and spoke at 205 of my own fundraising events. It’s hard to overstate the physical and psychological stamina required in such an effort, and how little time and energy it leaves for all else.

§ The “Money Primary” Weeds Out Good Candidates. Potential candidates know they have to succeed in not one but two elections: The first, in which contributors “vote” with their dollars, comes long before constituents have their say. And if you don’t win round one financially, you might as well not bother with round two; after all, because incumbency attracts money and money entrenches incumbency, no challenger spending under $850,000 won a House seat in 2000. With odds like those, many talented women and men flinch.

§ The “Pay to Play” System Especially Hurts Democratic Candidates and Values. Most Republicans oppose new regulations and taxes out of authentic belief. So they regard the special-interest funding of public elections as a brilliant system: For them, principles and payments go hand in hand. Robert Reich, a former Labor Secretary and recent Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate, believes his party is losing its identity as the champion of the average family “because Democrats became dependent on the rich to finance their campaigns. It is difficult to represent the little fellow when the big fellow pays the tab.”

Ever wonder why polls show that so many Americans strongly favor higher minimum wages, prescription drug benefits for Medicare, quality daycare, publicly financed Congressional campaigns and stronger environmental protection, even at the cost of higher taxes–yet the political system can’t produce any of these? The pay-to-play system is a circuit breaker between popular will and public policy.

Put yourself in an honest Democrat’s shoes: What do you do when a big-business donor privately asks you, “So where do you stand on X?” X being something that hugely helps or hurts his economic interests? You realize not only that your answer could immediately affect a large contribution but that the cost of paying for X will fall on taxpayers who are not listening on the phone.

Or suppose you’re in government. Once, as the New York City consumer affairs commissioner, I was considering filing a legal action that could cost a Democratic businessman I knew well millions of dollars. I successfully sued, and he did lose millions, and he wouldn’t speak to me for a decade. But this outcome did cross my mind as I weighed my decision to prosecute–given the current political money process, how could it not?

§ Wealth Buys Office. As more and more multimillionaires run and win–the percentage of them in the Senate has risen to more than one-third, about the same proportion as it was before senators began being elected by popular vote in 1913–more and more experience-rich candidates are grilled by party leaders about how they can possibly run against experience-poor but wealthy candidates. And when a very wealthy candidate inundates TV, radio and mailboxes with ads portraying him as a young Abe Lincoln and you as the Manchurian Candidate, the pressure to hustle special-interest money becomes even more intense.

Also, as campaign reformer Ellen Miller describes it, “the problem [with] more and more wealthy people running and winning is that then tax policy, healthcare policy and education policy are seen through the lenses of multimillionaires, people who don’t need government services. They are a different class of people and from a different world than most Americans, who sit around the kitchen table calculating their finances.”

So although issues like terrorism, healthcare and pollution absorb far more public attention and concern, the scandal of strings-attached money corrupting politics and government is the most urgent domestic problem in America today–because it makes it harder to solve nearly all our other problems. How can we produce smart defense, environmental and health policies if arms contractors, oil firms and HMOs have such a hammerlock on the committees charged with considering reforms? The culprit is not corrupt candidates but a corrupt system that coerces good people to take tainted money.

The old and much-discussed saga of political money may reach a climax between now and 2004 as a result of three epic developments:

First, the corporate scandals of 2001-2 started with questions about corrupt financing practices and then moved to questions about corrupt political practices. Joan Claybrook, head of Public Citizen and a veteran of the campaign finance wars, says, “Political money from the Enrons and others bought loopholes, exemptions, lax law enforcement, underfunded regulatory agencies and the presumption that corporate officials could buy anything they wanted with the shareholders’ money.” Once the current war fever abates electorally, will the Enron/Adelphia/Global Crossing/Tyco/WorldCom scandals lead to a shift in our political zeitgeist, as corruption a century ago led to the Progressive Era?

Second, the McCain-Feingold fight re-educated the public about money in politics. Given all the problems of our current system, the McCain-Feingold law is like throwing a ten-foot rope to a drowning swimmer forty feet offshore. But it’s necessary to stop huge soft-money federal gifts that enable big interests to make an end run around federal bans on corporate and labor donations.

Third, the Supreme Court will likely rule next spring on the constitutionality of McCain-Feingold’s two major provisions: banning soft-money fundraising by the national parties and restricting soft money for sham “issue” ads. This will be the Court’s first major consideration of campaign finance since 1976’s disastrous Buckley v. Valeo ruling, which held that legislatively enacted “expenditure limits” were an unconstitutional infringement on speech. If the Court had reached a different conclusion then, there would be no $2 million House candidates today, no $15 million Senate candidates, no $74 million mayoral candidates.

Moreover, the State of Vermont last year enacted a spending ceiling. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit initially upheld the law in August, arguing that evidence of legislators routinely selling access showed the law was a constitutionally permissible way of stopping such corruption. If this case goes to the Supreme Court with McCain-Feingold–and swing Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy agree with the Second Circuit majority–we’ll be close to taking the for-sale sign off our democracy.

Meanwhile, can the political process significantly reform not just the soft-money but also the hard-money system?

Most senators and representatives I interviewed thought Congress had exhausted itself in the McCain-Feingold fight and that this Republican Congress had no interest in going further. However, Fred Wertheimer of the campaign-reform group Democracy 21, citing the revolution of rising expectations, believes that “winning McCain-Feingold will open the door to another round,” if not in this Republican Congress then in a future one. “And we have put together the best coalition I’ve ever seen on an issue–from the AARP to the Sierra Club to labor and some businesses.”

But 535 campaign finance experts in Congress don’t want to change the rules that got them there and have kept them there; and there are hundreds of large interests who invest thousands and reap billions, a rate of return unrivaled since IBM and Microsoft went public–and who like things as they are.

So systemic reform may turn on the 2004 presidential election. If Gore, Kerry, Gephardt or Daschle runs against the current money game as ardently as McCain did–and wins–our slow-motion decline from democracy to plutocracy could end. Democrats searching for a popular and important message should embrace three fundamental reforms based on the slogan “Don’t Let Enron Run Your Democracy.”

1. Public Financing. The rationale is simple: If, say, twenty special interests give a senator $100,000 each, they own him or her; if instead a million taxpayers give $2 each in public funds, we own him or her. Isn’t it preferable for elected officials to be responsive to all voters rather than to relatively few donors? “Democratically funded elections” could follow either the New York City or the Arizona model. Under the first, 4-to-1 matching grants are made for all gifts up to $250 from people who can vote for the candidate (so a $25 gift becomes $125); under the second, after a gubernatorial candidate crosses a certain threshold–raising 4,000 contributions of at least $5–he or she receives all subsequent funding up to a specified ceiling from the public treasury, which could be raised by a “democracy surtax” imposed on registered lobbyists, political consultants and TV advertisers.

Public financing has worked in presidential campaigns and in New York City, Arizona and Maine elections. It avoids First Amendment arguments, since it increases speech instead of limiting it, and majorities of 70 percent regularly support it.

Two strategies can help win over even more voters and some legislators to democratically funded elections: Because the current private system of financing costs tens of billions in corporate welfare, pollution and lost productivity, any public financing system would be inexpensive by comparison. Also, bad policies–for example, privatization of Social Security and weaker fuel-efficiency standards–should be publicly linked to big contributions so voters understand the impact on their health and wallets.

2. Spending Limits. Because the financial “alms” race steals time and buys access, Congress and the Supreme Court should approve Vermont-like spending limits, which existed in the 1971 and 1974 federal campaign-finance laws until Buckley threw them out. But isn’t money protected First Amendment speech, as Senators McConnell, Lott et al. claim? No, money is property, as Justice John Paul Stevens concluded in a recent case, which is why the 1907 Tillman Act has banned corporate contributions for nearly a century. How does it advance First Amendment values to allow a few wealthy interests to spend millions of dollars more and drown out the voices and contributions of millions of average citizens?

3. Free or Discounted TV. Because the airwaves belong to the public, we provide broadcasters with federal licenses–for free–on the condition that they agree to serve “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” But they have not lived up to their end of the bargain, perhaps because broadcasters pulled down $1 billion in revenue from political commercials in the 2000 elections. Reducing that revenue would mean cutting into profit margins that average between 30 and 50 percent.

Paul Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a nonpartisan group that advocates free airtime, sums up the scam: “Our government gives broadcasters free licenses to operate on the public airwaves…. During the campaign season, broadcasters turn around and sell access to these airwaves to candidates at inflated prices.” He proposes that candidates who win their parties’ nominations receive vouchers for electronic advertising in their general election campaigns. Candidates, particularly from urban areas, who don’t find it cost-effective to advertise on television or radio could trade their vouchers to their party in exchange for funds to pay for direct mail or other forms of communication. As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes, “America is almost alone among the Atlantic democracies in declining to provide political parties free prime time on television during elections.” If it did so, it would “do much both to bring inordinate campaign costs under control and revitalize the political parties.”

For those who universalize the political moment and doubt we’ll ever have public financing, a spending ceiling or free TV, please remember that you’re right if reformers don’t try.

The history of America shows a “capacity for self-correction.” Even the Supreme Court, given enough time, has reversed itself on such issues as affirmative action, right to counsel, poll taxes and health and safety regulations.

Only such apologists for the status quo as George Will could believe it’s OK for a powerful 0.1 percent of the population to make $1,000 contributions to dictate policy to the other 99.9 percent; for only the rich or the kept to win office; for candidates to spend three-quarters of their time raising money so that the toll-takers known as broadcasters will allow public candidates to speak to the public over our publicly owned airwaves.

“History is like waves lapping at a cliff,” wrote French historian Henry See. “For centuries nothing happens. Then the cliff collapses.”

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy