'Fixing' Campaign Spending - Is the Problem Political Corruption, Public Apathy, or Media-Driven Campaigns?

By Hanson, Bertil | The World and I, March 2000 | Go to article overview

'Fixing' Campaign Spending - Is the Problem Political Corruption, Public Apathy, or Media-Driven Campaigns?


Hanson, Bertil, The World and I


Contemporary election campaigns appear scandalously expensive, arousing a complaint that campaign finance is in disarray and needs fixing.

The complaint is popular since it shows compassion for penniless or insolvent campaigners, who are overshadowed by amply funded favorites pampered by wealthy insiders and industries. Uneven financing seems to rig elections from the beginning.

Campaign-finance reform, as with other political repairs, begins with defining the real problem. As soon as one tackles this matter, a quandary arises because views of the problem conflict. Each view prompts a different notion of what needs fixing.

Corruption the chief problem

From one point of view, the chief problem with campaign finance is corruption, as reported by Elizabeth Drew in The Corruption of American Politics. Congressmen and other elected officials have allegedly become captivated and corrupted by opportunities to make fortunes pandering to the greed of special interests. They become so preoccupied with chances to acquire fortunes from narrow, selfish interests that they lose sight of the broader public interest.

If corruption caused by the scramble for contributions from wealthy special interests is truly the main campaign-finance problem, a logical fix would be to trim, discourage, or disallow receipts of contributions from special interests, variously identified as industries, labor unions, professional societies, PACs, and others. Regarding lobbying expenses and campaign contributions, Rep. Chris Shays (R-Connecticut), the lead Republican sponsor of campaign-finance reform legislation, has said, "Those who plow in lots of money have a weighted advantage our Founding Fathers never intended."

From another view, the campaign-finance problem is not ethics but disorganization and confusion afflicted on policymaking by highly able but competing experts and enterprises, whose campaign- finance contributions get them admitted into policymaking procedures. Unlike former times, congressmen are informed by smart lobbyists and experts employed by big contributors. By this analysis, Congress and state legislatures previously were habitually organized by majority and minority parties. Members with specific aims (for their constituents and themselves) used to depend on party loyalties and leadership to obtain financing for reelection campaigns and unify on votes on great issues. Party loyalties were paramount.

Now legislators get caught up in the art of cross-partisan coalition building to pass bills desired by incongruously different PACs and lobbyists expressing a wide range of positions. Major lobbying groups (like those representing banks, securities firms, and insurance companies) herded congressmen known to them as grateful contribution recipients into a grand coalition. Last year it repealed the Glass-Steagall Act (1933) with the Financial Services Modernization Act (1999), permitting the financiers to merge and sell each other's products. "Not since the Telecom Act of 1996 has so much money been spent by so few to the detriment of so many," quipped Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D- New York).

Similarly, major lobbying groups brought congressmen together to reject a bill to regulate managed health-care organizations (HMOs). For this problem, a fix would restore the higher proportion of campaign expenses that would be borne by the political parties, possibly institute public financing of election campaigns, and trim the contributions that congressmen rake in from PACs and lobbyists, whose influence infects both party conferences. Jonathan Salant of the AP wrote, "Health care is among the top issues to potential voters. Still, the health care industry won when Congress didn't pass a bill." The Health Benefits Coalition, which represents health care, insurance, and business organizations, spent $28.5 million to lobby and and gave $1.5 million to federal candidates between January 1 and June 30, amounting to $56,000 per lawmaker. …

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