Filthy lucre polluting our politics

Politics,” former President Jimmy Carter remarked in a rare moment of candor, “is the world’s second oldest profession, closely related to the first.”
Carter knew what he was talking about. As a presidential candidate, he had firsthand experience with our sleazy, graft-ridden system of campaign financing, a system that has been known to make whores out of the most virtuous politicians. Electoral success in this country is so dependent on raising huge sums of money that candidates for even relatively modest offices are virtually forced to court the support and donations of the nation’s ultra-rich corporate elite. Big-time givers expect, and usually receive, assorted political favors — usually in the form of enormous tax breaks or massive government subsidies — in return for their generosity.
The insidious role played by private money in the electoral process has grown in direct proportion to the meteoric rise in the cost of campaigning. During the past two decades, running for federal office in particular has become prohibitively expensive. According to the Center for a New Democracy, the bill for the average successful senate campaign tripled between 1980 and 1990, increasing from $1.2 million to $3.6 million. By 1994, the cost of victory in a senate race had risen yet again, this time to $4.6 million. During the free-wheeling ’80s, the price of winning a seat in the House more than doubled, rising from $179,000 to $410,000. And the inflationary trend held true for gubernatorial races as well. For example, a study by Oregon’s Public Interest Research Group found that the average amount spent by the state’s candidates for governor skyrocketed from $150,000 in 1972 to $1.8 million in 1992, more than a tenfold increase.
With the exception of a handful of large labor unions, only the truly affluent and corporate Political Action Committees can afford to shell out the kind of cash it now takes to elect a senator, governor or president. Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn reports that “less than one third of 1 percent of all givers put up about half of all political donations.” If you add business-connected personal gifts to donations from corporate PACs, corporate capital outspends ordinary working people in elections by a ratio of six to one.
Conservative commentators and the mainstream news media constantly assure us that the steady flow of corporate dollars into the pockets of elected representatives has no effect on the quality or accountability of government. But the fact is, the plutocracy gets exactly what it pays for: politicians who put the interests of business and the wealthy ahead of the common good.
Consider the career of presumptive Republican presidential nominee and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Dole’s past presidential bids, as well as his many successful runs for the Senate, were bankrolled primarily by people associated with agribusiness giants United States Tobacco Co., the Gallo wine family, Chiquita Brands International and Archer Daniels Midland. Not surprisingly, Dole habitually used his considerable clout on Capitol Hill to push for farm subsidies and tax breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars to these same companies. His relationship with Gallo wine is paradigmatic. Since 1979, the Gallo family has contributed a total of $381,000 to Dole’s campaigns. In addition to that, they’ve funneled $790,000 into the senator’s private charitable foundation. According to a recent “Frontline” report, to show his gratitude, Dole attached a special amendment to the 1986 budget bill that could eventually save the Gallo family $40 million to $50 million in inheritance taxes.
Granted, blatant influence peddling is hardly unique to the man from Russell, Kansas. President Clinton rewarded his Wall Street supporters by championing the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Phil Gramm can always be counted on to fight like hell for the legislative agenda of the oil companies who have given so freely to him throughout the years. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich energetically promoted a bill near and dear to Golden Rule Insurance Company after the company contributed $214,000 in soft money to the GOP. And retiring New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley’s resistance to efforts to impose price controls on prescription medication probably had something to do with the $90,000 he received from drug industry PACs in 1994. Such shameless quid pro quos are so common inside the beltway that mainstream pundits and journalists no longer bother to inform the public of their existence, much less complain about them.
The question, then, is not whether big-monied interests use their bulging bank-accounts to purchase power and political influence, but rather how do we get them to stop?
One popular and effective way of curbing the impact of big money on elections is to institute strict caps on campaign contributions. For instance, voters in Missouri, Montana and Oregon recently approved ballot initiatives limiting donations to political campaigns to $100. Promoted by the New Party, the Alliance of Community Organization for Reform Now and other citizens groups, $100-contribution limits level the playing field between millionaires and small donors. As Doug Hess of ACORN explained, “people feel like the contribution they can make to a candidate is worth something. It doesn’t get blown away by someone who can make $2,000 contributions.” Moreover, contribution limits reward grass-roots organizations over wealthy ones. With limits in place, a candidate with broad, active support but little money will stand a better chance of winning than a candidate with only a small circle of well-heeled backers. And in a democracy, that’s exactly how it should be.
While capping campaign contributions would be a giant step forward, the ultimate solution to the problem of money in politics would be a shift to a system that combines significant public funding of elections with limits on total campaign spending. Here, as with the issue of health care reform, we should take our lead from our saner friends to the north, the Canadians. In Canada, the amount candidates are permitted to spend in parliamentary elections is restricted to approximately $27,000. Parties and candidates are reimbursed out of the public coffers for 50 percent of their campaign expenses. And every television and radio network must make available between one and four hours of free air time for use by political parties during election season. While the Canadian approach to campaign finance is not without its problems, it has the distinct advantage of being relatively free of the kind of sanctioned corruption that has made such a mockery of democracy in our country.
America, as Mark Twain once observed, is blessed with the “best Congress money can buy.” The problem is we deserve better. And the only way we can make it any better is if we dismantle our current system of campaign funding and replace it with a more democratic, publicly administered one.
Steve Macek’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily.