The Public Should Finance Election Campaigns

Article excerpt

Why is the U.S. government spending money for another B-2 bomber? Having paid more than $60 billion on developing and building B-2s since the early 1980s, the program has long since turned into a budgetary behemoth. An independent study commissioned by Congress concluded last year that B-2s are too expensive and more bombers are not necessary. Even the Pentagon said they did not want any more B-2 bombers.

Yet when the 1996 defense budget came to the House and Senate floors last year, members of Congress voted to appropriate $493 million for an additional B-2. How did this happen?

Last year, the political action committee of Northrup Grumman, which builds the B-2, donated $320,775 to members of Congress - almost doubling what it had spent in 1993 and 1994. In the month of June, when a separate amendment to strip funding from the B-2 almost passed in the House, Northrup Grumman gave $75,200 in campaign contributions to representatives; only $2,000 went to members who opposed funding the program.

This is a perfect example of the not-so-insidious influence of money in our political system - a system in which corporations can buy" legislation in their favor, and a system that is in desperate need of reform.

Why should Catholics be concerned? "One of the principles of Catholic social teaching is, that we must participate in the decisions that affect our lives," says Sister Richelle Friedman, P.V.M.B., a lobbyist with Network, a Catholic social-justice lobbying organization in Washington. In the present system, the voices of low-income and poor people are not being heard. The voices that are being heard are those who have paid for the privilege."

Unfortunately, no one in Congress has any incentive to change the way campaigns are financed, because once candidates are elected into office, the current system works greatly to their benefit. Congressional incumbents receive four times as much money from political action committees (PACs) as their challengers do. PACs are fundraising organizations through which corporations can legally donate money to federal campaigns. "There are 535 experts on campaign finance reform in Washington," says Ellen Miller, executive director for the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) in Washington, D.C. "But as much as they hate the system, they have all mastered it. They know that the current system gives them an advantage, and that reform goes against their self-interest."

In the 1994 elections, almost 70 percent of the money raised by winning candidates came from PACs or from large individual contributors - most of whom were affiliated with big business. For example, employees of Northrup Grumman and other B-2 contractors donated $233,212 to congressional candidates in the 1993-1994 election cycle.

Then there is "soft money" - contributions to the two major parties that are spent for the candidates' benefit. Add all this up, and it is clear that most congressional campaign have been almost entirely financed by corporate interests.

And the cost of getting reelected keeps rising. Congressional candidates spent $777 million in 1994, a 20 percent increase over the last election cycle, according to CRP. A winning seat cost an average of $516,000 in the House and $4.6 million in the Senate. For a House candidate who raised $250,000 or less, the odds against winning were 18 to 1. Former Senator Barry Goldwater (R.-Ariz.) said, "Senators and representatives, faced incessantly with the need to raise ever more funds to fuel their campaigns, can scarcely avoid weighing every decision against the question, 'How will this affect my fundraising prospects?' rather than 'How will this affect the national interest?'"

If you are still skeptical that all this money influences legislation, consider these examples:

* The Telecommunications Act that passed earlier this year was praised by members of Congress for increasing competition in the industry, and thereby lowering prices and improving service, but the new law actually deregulates the industry and encourages telecommunication conglomerates to pursue further mergers, which can only allow prices to rise. …