The trouble with politics is money

Robert Kuttner

March 14, 1991|By Robert Kuttner

AS THE savings-and-loan scandal keeps reminding us, money is at the root of much political evil.

Too many officeholders spend far too much time raising money and then pandering to it. Too many good people are dissuaded from entering public service because they lack either money, or the stomach to go after it. Too many millionaires, who used to finance political campaigns, now simply run for office themselves. This is the way the game has come to be played.

Money-men today have far too much power in politics to set the agendas of incumbents. And too many incumbents reign, free from democratic challenge.

Beyond the incumbency problem, political money buys rich people and organized groups more influence than ordinary citizens. That, in turn, makes politics an insiders' game, whose reek drives away voters. The cycle keeps repeating itself, making politics that much more isolated and unconvincing as a medium of political democracy.

As money keeps driving away voters, America is in danger of becoming less a democracy than a "broad-based oligarchy," in the phrase of the late political scientist E.E. Schattschneider.

The currently fashionable remedy for all this is term limitation. Limiting the number of years incumbents can serve supposedly fills two needs. It satisfies the public's visceral contempt for politics, and it breaks the lock incumbents have on raising money and hanging onto office.

But that cure might well prove worse than the disease. Pushing incumbents out the revolving door would give even more power to permanent unelected staffs and permanent lobbyists. It would also encourage politicians with a short lease on public office to cash in their chits that much sooner. And it would arbitrarily sweep away the good along with the bad. Some of the most distinguished and public-minded legislators are veterans, while some newcomers are creeps.

Since the real problem is not incumbency but money, the only true solution is to break the link between money and politics. Very few large donors give money for civic reasons. They give money to buy influence. And that corrupts not just individual politicians but democracy itself.

The simplest solution would be a constitutional amendment of a few words: "It shall be illegal for anyone to contribute money, directly or indirectly, to an officeholder or a candidate for public office." This, in turn, could compel Congress to devise a public-financing system once and for all.

Rather than crusading for term limitation, activists at the state level should work for a flat ban on private donations to politicians. This would be far more effective than limiting political-action committees (PACs), or otherwise further limiting the size of donations -- all of which could be easily circumvented.

The amendment I propose would also have the effect of reversing the Supreme Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which carved a huge loophole in the campaign finance laws by allowing individuals to run advertisements on behalf of candidates, without having these outlays counted as contributions. My amendment would also prohibit the "soft money" loophole, which allows unlimited private donations to political parties.

If this remedy sounds Draconian, keep in mind how political democracy is supposed to work. Voters are supposed to make informed choices on candidates for public office. There is nothing in democratic politics which requires a private right to donate money to politicians. On the contrary, the use of money as a medium of influence corrupts the most basic principle of democracy, which is one citizen, one vote.

Nothing in this reform would prohibit working in a campaign, stuffing envelopes, ringing doorbells or the other healthy aspects of citizen activism on behalf of politics. It would not prohibit constituents from demanding attention; it would only prohibit buying attention.

Sen. Don Riegle of Michigan, the banking committee chairman and one of the "Keating five," was said to spend several hours a day on the phone, raising money for his re-elections. Sen. Alan Cranston, another of the five, used senior staff aides as campaign fund-raisers. There is no way that this manner of operating can fail to be profoundly corrupting.

Another recent senator, Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, the only incumbent who lost his seat in the 1990 elections, actually went to the extreme of distributing color-coded envelopes to his supporters. Large donors were promised the quickest response when they wrote his Senate office, followed by small donors. Ordinary citizens came last. Boschwitz merely systematized what is common practice.

But when politics works this way, it is something less than a democracy. Breaking the link between money and politics would not only restore voting participation to its rightful place; it would do an immense favor to senators and congressmen by allowing them, once again, to be legislators rather than shills.

Robert Kuttner writes regularly on economic matters.

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