Ending the Money Chase

By Watzman, Nancy | Sierra, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Ending the Money Chase


Watzman, Nancy, Sierra


Campaign reform could return our democracy to its rightful owners

A law that actually forbids improved fuel efficiency, passed in the waning days of the 106th Congress, provides one of the most striking arguments yet for campaign-finance reform.

In its 67 words, Section 320 of Public Law 106-346 prohibits the Department of Transportation from strengthening fuel-economy standards for light trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Inserted at the behest of the automobile industry (which has given $58.4 million to federal candidates and their parties over the past decade), the provision prevents the agency from cutting the U.S. contribution of global warming gases by 240 million tons annually. Though improving fuel economy is the biggest single action the United States could take to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, it has run into a wall of money.

Congress has approved Section 320 as part of the Transportation Department's budget every year since 1995. Only last year, after intense lobbying by the Sierra Club and increased pressure due to high gas prices, did Congress agree to ask the National Academy of Sciences to study the issue--but it continued to prohibit the Transportation Department from taking any concrete action.

Why is Congress so eager to please the auto industry, and so reluctant to heed environmentalists' concerns? It could have something to do with the fact that the auto industry out-contributes environmental groups by a margin of more than 8 to 1. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), environmental groups have given a relatively puny $7 million to candidates and parties since 1990, and that money is from all environmental groups working on a host of issues, of which fuel economy is just one.

Auto-industry money is a good predictor of congressional behavior. In October 1999, the 55 senators who voted against investigating stronger fuel-economy standards received more than twice as much money from the auto industry, on average, as the 40 senators who voted for it, according to an analysis by Public Campaign, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to reform campaign-finance laws.

The environmental lobby finds its arguments buried under industry cash in other areas, too. Since 1990, activists working to end commercial logging on national forests have been up against timber industry campaign contributions of nearly $25 million. Those toiling in the decades-old effort to prevent oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge must confront the effects of the $118 million the oil and gas industry gave politicians over the past decade. And environmentalists who opposed normalizing trade relations with China (because it could encourage U.S. manufacturers to move operations there in search of weak environmental standards) were drowned out by the $85 million spent during the 2000 elections by members of the Business Roundtable, a lobbying coalition of more than 200 major U.S. companies that is a vocal supporter of freer trade with China.

Current campaign-finance laws keep the great majority of politicians addicted to all this legal tender. In the 2000 elections, winning a seat in the House cost an average of $636,000, while a Senate seat cost an average of $5.6 million, according to an analysis by CRP. Overall, the tab for the 2000 elections was more than $3 billion, the highest in history.

Politicians won't overcome their addiction unless there is an alternative way to run successful bids for office. Probably the best-known national campaign-finance reform proposal, by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), would eliminate the soft-money loophole that allows donors to give unlimited dollars to political parties and "independent expenditure" campaigns. …

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