How money rules in politics Campaign financing undermines democracy

June 23, 1996|By Deborah Povich

As the 1996 elections near, candidates scurry for campaign contributions from any willing donor. A look at some recent political fund-raisers shows the extent to which money dominates the political agenda.

A few weeks ago, the Republicans, having raised $16 million in January, raked in another $8 million at a Washington fund-raiser. Around the same time, the Democrats, after raising $12 million in May, held a cozy event in Las Vegas attended by former GOP supporter and casino mogul Steve Wynn, who now has committed to raise a significant sum for the Democrats.

These fund-raisers bring to light some of the problems with the current campaign financing system.

Overwhelmingly, the wealthy and the well-connected dominate the campaign financing system. Big donors often have a vested interest in political decisions. When businesses and wealthy corporate heads give to both parties, their real motives become apparent. They aren't bestowing ideological support, they're seeking access and influence. Philip Morris, Seagram Co., Atlantic Richfield, Archer Daniels Midland and Chevron top the list of double givers in federal campaigns, funneling money to both parties in the first six months of 1995.

Whether the issue is regulation of tobacco products, requirements to clean up pollution from agri-business, or the impact of auto emissions on our air, companies give money to help their bottom lines. And they get something for their investment -- a telephone call returned, a personal meeting with an elected official or the opportunity to amend legislation.

The tactic recently paid off for the telecommunications industry. In January 1995, top telecommunications executives, who had given $23.5 million in political contributions over the past 10 years, were invited to closed-door meetings with members of the House Commerce Committee. Consumer and rate-payer groups, who are not major political donors, were not invited to this special meeting. The result: Early this year, a bill widely supported by the telecommunications industry was signed into law.

Large campaign contributions have an impact that is real, not imagined. A $1,000 contribution may not carry excessive influence, particularly if it represents only a small percent of a candidate's total money. But what if a candidate ran for a local office and only spent $5,000? The source of 20 percent of a candidate's money will not be ignored. And the $100,000 contributors who funnel money through political parties can be assured their interests receive careful attention.

Democrats and Republicans auction off access to high-level officials for huge donations. At a recent fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee, donors who ponied up $100,000 got dinner with the president and vice president. The Republicans did the same thing at their January national committee affair, where $250,000 bought a private audience with selected Senate and House committees and lunches with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Bob Dole.

Uncontrolled campaign costs are the driving force behind the race for large contributions. As campaign costs balloon, there is a decrease in the pool of candidates willing or able to access huge sums of money. And the pool becomes self-selective. We have more millionaire elected officials in Washington because they can afford to finance their own campaigns. But do we want our representatives to look less like the general population, and more like the country club?

The average winning U.S. Senate candidate spent $4.5 million in 1994, an increase of over 600 percent since 1976. For candidates to raise $4.5 million, they must bring in almost $15,000 a week every week for six years. Raising this kind of money takes time. The time politicians spend raising money is time taken away from quality decision-making, often leaving us with legislative grid-lock.

In Maryland, the 1994 governor's race was the most expensive in history, with the winning candidate raising and spending over $5.2 million.

The incumbent governor wants to raise $11 million to run again in 1998, double what he raised just four years earlier. It's hard to raise that kind of money in small contributions from individuals. Instead, he'll have to go after the big donors -- lobbyists and their clients -- who'll be seeking executive and legislative that favor their profit lines.

It's well documented that funds flow more easily to incumbents than to challengers. This is largely because political action committee (PAC) contributions go overwhelmingly to incumbents. In 1994, incumbents received 79 percent of the PAC money given to general election candidates running for the House of Representatives.

The 1994 congressional freshmen "reform" class learned the advantage of incumbency firsthand. As incumbents, the current House freshmen raised almost 40 percent of their receipts from PACs in 1995, nearly double the percent raised from PACs when they were challengers in l994.

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