The Cost of Politics; the Case for Public Funding of Campaigns

Article excerpt

OUR TWO dominant political parties have sold their souls to save their political skins. We no longer have a government of the people, by the people and for the people, but a government of, by and for special interests. The savings-and-loan collapse and the activities of the Keating Five are but the most costly and egregious examples of big money attempting to buy political favor (that one attempt ultimately will cost taxpayers more than $500 billion).

Abner Mikva, presiding judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., and a former member of the House of Representatives, calls the problem of special-interest groups' financial leverage in political campaigns "the greatest domestic issue we face." Reflecting upon his careef in elective politics, Mikva has said, "If I knew then what I know now, I would never have run for Congress." What angers Mikva about the present system of campaign financing is not so much criminal activity as a more subtle form of corruption--the buying and selling of political access and favors. Even the most cursory look at campaigns dramatically supports Mikva's perspectives.

The congressional campaigns of 1992 raised more than $440 million. When added to the amounts for 1990, almost $900 million will have been raised for those two federal elections. Incumbents' races for the House of Representatives in 1992 raised more than $220 million, while their challengers raised less than $35 million. And, in one of the most remarkable of all aspects of campaign spending, more than $10 million was contributed to congressional incumbents facing no opposition.

In the U.S. Senate races in California, two of the most publicized contests in the country, which pitted Barbara Boxer against Bruce Herschensohn and Diane Feinstein against John Seymour, more than $26 million was raised. In one California congressional race, Michael Huffington, a Republican, raised $4.4 million to defeat his Democratic opponent Gloria Ochoa, who was able to raise "only" $445,000.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this astronomical fund raising is the part played by political action committees. In 1992 PACs contributed more than $140 million to House and Senate candidates--32 percent of all monies contributed. Forty percent of congressional members received 50 percent or more of their campaign contributions from PACs. Two Colorado representatives received 75 percent of their funds from these dubious sources. Two liberal California Democrats, Don Edwards and Julian Dixon, received more than 62 percent of their contributions from PACs. The political action committees also gave to incumbents without challengers, which Amanda O'Neill, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, has characterized as a "clear case of influence peddling."

The problems of spiraling campaign costs--high-priced political consultants, candidates more sensitive to pollsters than people, the vast influence of special-interest money--are extraordinary. But perhaps the worst result is that it compels congresspeople to spend inordinate amounts of their time raising funds. Richard Reeves, in a speech to the Denver Forum, quoted Senator Timothy Wirth as claiming that he spent four to six hours a day raising campaign money (an illuminating comment, especially given Wirth's decision not to seek re-election). …