Governor Buddy Roemer doesn’t mince words. He is scathing in his assessment of money’s all-out hold on Congress. Yet he seems surprisingly optimistic in his belief that the situation can be not just improved, but fixed. Not everyone will accept his prescription, but most Americans undoubtedly agree that Congress and government officials in Washington don’t adequately represent our interests. Indeed, they don’t represent our interests, as Roemer rightly points out, because of systemic and fundamental flaws in how government functions, based in large part on the disproportionate influence special-interest groups wield over politics and policy. Roemer thinks the answer lies in restricting contributions to small donations, such as the one-hundred-dollar maximum he placed on contributions to his presidential campaign.
One might question whether this proposal is feasible. It’s hard enough to find good candidates willing to turn over their lives (and their family’s lives) to a political campaign, much less candidates who will adopt the additional challenge of self-imposed low-level contribution limits. President Barack Obama did exceedingly well with small contributions, leveraging technology to turbocharge online donations. Even so, he still relied more heavily on donors giving big money and those bundling contributions on his behalf. (An interesting side note: the candidate now raking in the most money in small donations, as a percentage of her total war chest, appears to be presidential candidate Michele Bachmann—though she’s doing it the old-fashioned way, by spending huge sums on direct-mail marketing.)
At the Center for Responsive Politics, however, we don’t take a position on any particular campaign-finance reform—whether it be Roemer’s one-hundred-dollar donor campaign, or public financing, or anything else—except for the proposal to increase disclosure and enforcement. We make this exception because everyone—CRP, the press, the public—needs access to information.
Citizens need access to information about where money is coming from and going to, and why, so that they can better understand their government. Who are the major players working the corridors of power? What do they want? Who are they targeting? How are they gaining access and influence? Many of the answers to those questions can only be found by tracking the money that flows into our political system.
For its part, Congress is hamstrung by the system’s profound reliance on money. A U.S. House seat cost on average $1.4 million during the 2010 elections; a seat in the U.S. Senate cost $9.8 million. These are huge sums that raise barriers to entry for all but the richest or best-connected candidates. When successful candidates arrive in Washington—virtually all of whom rely on other people’s money to get there—they step into office with a huge pile of political IOUs from donors whose dollars represented investments in very specific agendas. And even though the election is over, the fundraising never stops. While senators get a six-year break until they run again, House members immediately have to start raising another $1.4 million—or whatever it takes—for the next election, less than two years away.
Politicians arrive in Washington with a huge pile of political IOUs.
Whenever Congress is in session, fundraising breakfasts, lunches, dinners, barbecues, cocktail parties—you name it—are going on all over Washington to help refill the incumbents’ political coffers. Each day a blizzard of invitations to these fundraisers falls on lobbyists, PAC directors, trade associations, unions, and interest groups of every stripe. It makes one wonder who exactly is getting first-class representation in Washington: the constituents back home or the “cash constituents” who keep the money machine oiled and humming. This is one of the few things in Washington that is completely bipartisan.
Roemer’s essay is especially remarkable for explaining what Congress is like from the inside. But among insiders, he’s hardly alone in his distaste for the system. Other congressional members have also volunteered similar statements of disgust as they’ve left Congress. The Center for Responsive Politics catalogued many of these statements about how money greases the skids in Washington in Speaking Freely: Washington Insiders Talk About Money in Politics. Former Representative Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) put it bluntly: “You’re either on the outside or the inside, and the only thing that can get you on the inside is money.”
Another favorite quote of mine comes from Representative Pete Kostmayer (D-Pa.) quoted in an earlier edition of the book, saying, “I remember when I got on Energy and Commerce, everybody jumped for the Telecommunications Subcommittee first. . . . There was a member sitting next to me, and every time another member bid for that subcommittee, he went ‘Ding!’—as if a cash register was going off.”
Members of key committees stand to rake in more money because so many parties with business before those committees are ready to “help out” with their reelection efforts. Committee members then have to make a choice whether to defend their constituents’ interests or tend to the more vocal interests of those who are also contributing to their campaign coffers. The comparative influence of donor interests can be powerful. “All of us, me included, are guilty of this,” says Representative Vin Weber. “If the company or interest group is (a) supportive of you, and (b) vitally concerned about an issue that (c) nobody else in your district knows about or ever will know about, then the political calculus is very simple.”
Corruption scandals involving campaign contributions like Enron or the Paul Magliocchetti Group are plentiful enough, and nothing beats the Jack Abramoff and the Duke Cunningham scandals for sheer gall. Yet the biggest scandal of all is that old-fashioned bribery, extortion, and other illegal influence are really not needed today. When politicians are dependent on cultivating the ongoing goodwill of deep-pocketed interest groups, when those groups base their donations on how well politicians vote on their issues, and when ordinary citizens are so disgusted by the whole game that they no longer even pay attention, our political system serves connected insiders at the expense of the public interest. This is not the way our government is supposed to work.