Interest groups pull Congressional strings

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (U-WIRE) — Wondering why your favorite beer or hard alcohol costs so much more this year? Wonder no more.
In Time Magazine’s recent campaign-financing exposÇ on Feb. 7, they had a quote from an anonymous Washington lawyer who said, “I went in to see a congressman. His first question was, ‘How much can you bring in?’ When I explained I was representing a state agency, and by law could make no campaign contributions, his eyes glazed over and he said he had other commitments.”
The average congressional campaign costs several million dollars, and a Senate race in a state like Illinois costs well over $10 million, if one wants to win.
It’s no wonder that congressmen act like coke addicts. Their ultimate goal is getting re-elected, and that takes money. And to raise $10 million requires the single-minded focus of a … well, coke addict.
It doesn’t matter whether the above-mentioned congressman was a Republican or a Democrat. Their addictions only differ slightly.
What do these donors get in return? It doesn’t take much imagination. In a recent Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed the $1,000 contribution limit on campaigns, Justice David Souter wrote: “When powerful interests shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they often get what they want. But it is ordinary organizations and firms that pay the price.”
How does one get favorable treatment? According to Time, there are two ways: contribute to campaigns or hire a lobbying team. What if you can’t?
The rest of us pay a disproportionate share of America’s tax bill, pay higher prices for a range of products from peanuts to prescription drugs and pay taxes others are recused from paying. In other words: “Government for the few at the expense of the many.”
Not that Washington is the problem. Those who think giving more power to the states will solve anything are living in a fantasy land. If anything, Illinois’ state government is even worse. We have the loosest campaign finance laws in the country, which brings me back to why your beer costs more.
Gov. George Ryan spent $14 million to get himself elected in 1998. Not coincidentally, in 1999 he proposed a massive spending plan. The plan was rumored to be a payback for the unions and others who had supported him in 1998, such as the Operating Engineers Union, who gave him $97,200. To pay for this, he raised, among other things, liquor prices.
Even more damaging, he got the legislature to pass the Wirtz Act, giving liquor distributors virtual monopolies over liquor in their areas. It was named after Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, who received a monopoly in Chicagoland. This allowed him, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, “to raise liquor prices almost at will.” That is exactly what most distributors did, raising prices far beyond last summer’s new taxes and causing even Ryan to admit the bill was a bad idea. Wirtz contributed $65,000 to Ryan and legislative leaders in the 1998 election cycle.
To put on a more concrete level what happens when a legislator gets campaign contributions, I’ll use the example of a single state legislator. He just happens to represent Campustown in the 103rd District.
There is no evidence that Rick Winkel (R-Champaign) is more money-grubbing than many other legislators. He might simply agree with the special interests that fund his campaigns; however, he might be no more of an “HMO lapdog” as one Winkel protester’s sign at a campaign finance hearing suggested, than his colleagues. But the evidence is telling.
Winkel voted yes on the Wirtz Bill, which allowed distributors to jack up beer and liquor prices. Was the Association of Beer Distributors of Illinois one of his biggest contributors? — Check.
Winkel voted against a bill, HB 2187, which would have prohibited emergency rooms from denying care to people who can’t pay. He also voted against a bill, HB 189, that would have stopped HMOs from mandating Caesarean sections — as cost-saving efforts — and HB 626, the Managed Care Reform Act.
Contributions from the Illinois Hospital and Health Systems Association, Illinois Association of HMOs and Illinois Medical Society?
Does anyone care? In 1998, only 33 percent of registered voters voted. I’d say yes, people care. Both McCain and Bradley made campaign finance reform the centerpiece of their campaigns, and both polled better among the general public than the opponents who eventually beat them.
McCain got one-third of the Republican primary vote as late as two weeks ago in Pennsylvania. Obviously, the McCain concept is not something voters want to let go of.
There are effective solutions, too. Nebraska enacted a spending limit of $77,000 per seat. Any spending over the limit and a candidate would have to give an equal amount of money to his or her competitor. Another way to take the money out of politics is to give candidates free air time. The public does own the airwaves and gets almost nothing in return. Free air time could be a requirement for anyone who wants a license renewed. The easiest ways would be McCain’s plan to eliminate the soft money and issue-ad loopholes in the current laws.
Will this happen? McCain has proved that somebody the public believes in can rouse their interests. Everywhere he competed, there were record primary turnouts. Maybe the key to get the public interested in politics again is a candidate not simply interested in himself.

Michael Richards’ column originally appeared in Tuesday’s University of Illinois paper, the Daily Illini.