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It is time to govern flow of political money

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POSTED: November 6, 2009 10:32 a.m.
There was a time when I believed that the best way to curtail the impact of money flowing into our political system was to monitor it. Make sure that campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures were reported quickly and accurately, I reasoned, and journalists and the American public could determine for themselves what they could tolerate.
Transparency is still needed. But the entire political system is now so swamped with cash — and lawmakers so overwhelmed by the need to raise it — that something more is clearly needed. Congress, the institution I know best, is in danger of drowning. It needs help. Americans dislike the idea of using taxpayer dollars to fund politicians’ campaigns, but what Congress needs is pretty straightforward: It needs public financing of congressional campaigns.
The simple cost of running for office is ludicrous. I first ran for Congress 45 years ago, and spent $30,000 on that race. That was before the costs of television advertising, pollsters, consultants, web strategists, get-out-the-vote efforts and all the other mechanics of a modern campaign took off — it was even before most of them were considered essential. These days, the winners of House seats spend an average of $1.3 million on their campaigns (and that includes both competitive and noncompetitive races); on the Senate side, it’s closer to $8 million.
Except for certain well-situated politicians, most of the people running for Congress are not raising this money at home. Instead, they’re turning to wealthy donors in a few major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and, of course, Washington. In the last election cycle, in fact, contributions from those five cities, many of them aligned with one or another special interest jockeying for position on Capitol Hill, outweighed those from 36 states combined.
Although the rise of the Web as a fundraising tool has to some extent democratized political giving, that trend is still puny compared to the concentration of financial power in relatively few hands. In 2008, a few industry sectors — finance and real estate, lawyers and lobbyists, healthcare, communications, and energy and transportation — combined to provide $1.2 billion to federal candidates. Of all the funds raised by federal candidates, including candidates for president, less than 1 percent of Americans provided 80 percent of the money.
The effect of all this is apparent. Far too many Americans are now convinced that they count for very little in the political arena because their voices are drowned out at election time by heavy donors and in the legislative process by well-heeled special interests. In a poll conducted last year by the Center on Congress at Indiana University, more than half the people surveyed believed that members of Congress pay closest attention to lobbyists; only 10 percent believed they listen to the folks back home.
This is understandable, especially if you look at giving patterns whenever Congress takes up legislation affecting a given industry. When a banking regulation bill starts moving on Capitol Hill, suddenly donations to key members of the banking committees skyrocket; when a health care bill is on the docket, the flow of money to key committee members is unstinting. These torrents of cash power widespread cynicism about our system.
The impact on Capitol Hill has been no more wholesome. Lawmakers are engulfed by the need to raise money, and by the political calculations they must inevitably make when weighing what big-time donors want. They spend many hours each week going to fundraisers or telephoning potential donors; given the need to raise some $15,000 every week for House seats (and more for the Senate), it’s hardly surprising that they find themselves listening especially closely to those who can promise access to the financial spigot.
We often criticize Congress for its inefficiency, but its members certainly are efficient at vacuuming up contributions. Yet this fundraising treadmill makes it much more difficult for our elected representatives to do what we hired them to do: study and understand the complicated dilemmas facing our country, debate the policy alternatives, work with one another to forge common ground, and spend time listening to and speaking with their constituents. In other words, it has wrenched the political process completely off track. For both candidate and contributor, the money-hunting process is demeaning.
So it’s time for us to consider some alternatives. In my view, this means moving toward the public funding of congressional campaigns, just as we do for presidential campaigns — perhaps requiring a mix of public and private funds.
When I propose this in public forums, I often feel lucky there aren’t any pitchforks handy, because my irate listeners would certainly use them on me. But as a political scientist I know puts it: We already pay for congressional campaigns, we just label it “the national debt.” Interests that donate to campaigns often get what they want from legislation, and we all pay for that; by comparison, public financing seems like a bargain. Until we get it, moneyed interests will command the playing field, and our political process — and our representative democracy — will be twisted beyond all sense.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
 

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