Sure-Fire Campaign Reform
The campaign is over. The campaign reform campaign has just begun. Everyone, it seems, has a plan to fix up the election process. Outlaw PACs. Don't let candidates raise money from anyone outside their districts. Slap spending limits on congressional races. Force broadcasters to give candidates free air time.
Trouble is, these plans won't work. Some are better than others, but all are misconceived.
Consider the problem they're supposed to solve. Incumbents, especially in the House, never lose. (Only four lost in '88.) They also raise more money than they know what to do with—and a lot more than their opponents raise. House members garnered some $137 million between January 1, 1987, and September 30, 1988, compared to $25 million raised by challengers. The PAC figures are even more lopsided: $62 million for incumbents, $5 million for challengers.
But this disparity didn't just happen. Congress made it illegal for individuals to give as much as they want to the candidates of their choice. And it let PACs dole out more campaign contributions than individuals. Individuals might give out of ideological fervor or personal affection. But corporations, unions, and trade associations don't. They want results, and they can't take chances on losers.
As one unidentified PAC manager told Time, "The core of our business is access to legislators. We can get shut out if we give to challengers who lose." This is one anonymous statement so obviously true it needs no attribution.
And it goes to the heart of what's really wrong with the current system and why the stench of corruption rises from even the most above-board contributions. Elections are not about money. They're about power.
Incumbents raise big bucks because they wield big power. They can grant huge favors to their friends or deliver crushing blows to their enemies. In particular, they have the power to tax and the power to regulate. Campaign contributions have become less a vote of approval than a kind of protection money.
None of the popular reform proposals would ameliorate this situation. And reform would have to come from the same people who have already rigged the rules in their favor—incumbents. It's naive to think they'll pass laws to hurt themselves.
Most reformers want to cut down on the amount of money in campaigns, either by establishing spending limits or by making it harder for people to give. But the only way a challenger can mount an effective campaign is to spend lots of money, particularly on TV ads. This is especially true in large cities, where there may be dozens of congressional races—all ignored by the local media because they lack general interest. All that most voters in my district knew about the Republican challenger, for instance, was what appeared on the ballot: his name and occupation.
So, suggest some, we should make broadcasters give candidates free commercial time. This idea, which was proposed as a bill last session, exemplifies what ails Congress—it is much too quick to expropriate whatever it wants. Candidates are no different from General Mills; they should have to pay for what they take. (And I, for one, don't want Lyndon LaRouche popping up on my TV every night.)
But what about eliminating PACs or limiting contributors to people in the home district? For a few years, these reforms might actually help challengers, until incumbents' lawyers inevitably found the loopholes. But such proposals ignore a fundamental fact about Congress. It governs the nation, not just a bunch of districts. People who can't vote for (or against) John Dingell, for instance, have to live with what he does as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And campaign contributions, despite their flaws, do act as something of a check on congressional power.
There are a few reforms that might alter the balance between incumbents and challengers. We could limit congressional terms, to, say, two for senators and six for representatives. But that would take a constitutional amendment, always a tricky matter, and cutting off voters' choices generally isn't a good idea. Plus, lame ducks may govern even less responsibly than people who just might have to face a real election.
A less dramatic change—but one that's a good idea in and of itself—would be to eliminate franking privileges. Congress pestered constituents with 600 million pieces of mail last year, free of charge. Based on the cheapest rate available, for nonprofit bulk mail, that amounts to a $50.4-million subsidy to incumbents, not including wages for people in the congressional mailroom. Getting rid of the blank postage check wouldn't stop lawmakers from communicating with their constituents. They could still pay for mailings out of their budgets. But they'd have to consider the cost and make tradeoffs like the rest of us. (And, who knows, maybe they'd develop a little more sympathy for postal competition.)
The best campaign reform would be to scrap campaign reform—to legalize any and all contributions but still require disclosure. Yes, disclosure represents a slight invasion of privacy, and it makes me uncomfortable. But, voters ought to know who's backing what candidate, and, frankly, they won't have it any other way.
Technical fixes can't reform the political system. They may even make it worse, as they have so far. As long as Congress can reward and punish, taking from the many and giving to the few, interest groups will find a way to influence its votes—if only to protect themselves.
Political favors can come in more benign forms, too. Right now, ordinary citizens depend on friendly congressional staff to negotiate the ever-expanding bureaucracy, to get Uncle Joe his Social Security check and Mom her passport. Do enough such favors and you'll be reelected for life, maybe even longer.
Only by limiting the size and scope of government will we ever achieve real campaign reform. And that will take a very, very long campaign.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Sure-Fire Campaign Reform".