Alan Cranston wants to clean up Congress. No, the four-term senator from California is not going to resign. In fact, he has indicated that he will run for a fifth term in 1992.
But given Cranston's ties to Charles H. Keating, Jr., owner of the bankrupt Lincoln Savings & Loan—the large contributions Keating made to Cranston and four other senators and these five senators' alleged role in preventing federal regulators from closing Lincoln—some might argue that Cranston should resign. After all, bailing out Lincoln will cost taxpayers $2.5 billion.
But Cranston isn't talking resignation. In fact, he's trying hard to play down his involvement with Lincoln. Instead, Cranston is pushing campaign reform as a way to clean up politics. And he has some strange allies: Common Cause and Public Citizen, two groups that claim to be dedicated to making sure that politics stay clean and that politicians are responsive to the voters.
The reformers think they have Congress right where they want it. "The time is right," says Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. But when career do-gooders team up with a political sharpie like Cranston, we should ask who's using whom.
Both Cranston and his newfound allies agree on the source of dirty politics: the high cost of campaigning. As Claybrook explains, the heavy expenses of modern campaigning—buying TV time, mass mailings, travel—have driven some legislators "into the arms of special interest groups who are more than happy to provide the money." For Cranston this provides a convenient excuse for his involvement with Keating. In effect, he's telling voters, "Don't blame me; blame the system."
Cranston and his allies also agree on the solution: charge the high cost of campaigning to taxpayers. Cranston has proposed a voluntary $1.00-a-month payroll tax to fund congressional campaigns. "So long as our elected representatives must depend on private campaign contributions to be viable candidates, our political system will be suspect," Cranston told a Senate committee in February. His reputation suffers; voters pay.
This ruse seems popular among politicians with reputation problems. Three other senators with ties to Keating—Dennis DeConcini (D–Ariz.), John Glenn (D–Ohio), and Don Reigle (D–Mich.)—have also jumped on board the public financing bandwagon. And Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R–N.Y.) announced his support for public financing after coming under investigation for his possible role in the HUD and Wedtech scandals.
In addition to distracting the public from their alleged misdeeds, public financing holds another attraction for these senators: It gives incumbents an advantage over challengers. That is why Democrats, who hold a majority in both houses of Congress, have traditionally been more receptive to public financing than Republicans, or at least, Republicans who aren't under investigation.
The entire electoral system is stacked against the challenger. Incumbents usually enjoy greater name recognition than their opponents; they have an easier time getting free air time on the evening news. They can use C-SPAN to beam their speeches into every home in their districts wired for cable; challengers cannot.
Perhaps most important, incumbents have franking privileges that challengers don't. Members of Congress spend millions each year mailing taxpayer-subsidized newsletters to the constituents back home. Ostensibly, these newsletters keep the voters up to date on their representatives' every move. But actually, they do little more than tout incumbents' accomplishments. It's no accident that franking expenses have tended to go up in election years.
Reformers say that only by offering candidates public financing can they get them to agree to spending limits. But public financing and spending limits do not address the real advantages over challengers that the system gives to incumbents.
Further, any election reform package will inevitably have loopholes, and incumbents have an incentive to find these loopholes. For example, existing federal laws have placed limits on what one individual may contribute to a politician's campaign, but have left no limit on the money that may be donated to neutral efforts such as voter registration drives. Part of the investigation of Cranston involves $850,000 that Keating donated to voter registration groups whose efforts may have aided Cranston. By donating money to the registration drives Keating evaded the limits and helped his buddy.
But this wasn't the first time Cranston tried to find an advantageous loophole. During his February testimony advocating public financing, Cranston reminded the Senate committee of his involvement in passing the Elections Campaign Act of 1973. But he didn't mention that he has been cited for breaking the rules of that very act during his 1984 presidential bid. The Federal Election Commission later fined Cranston for exceeding the Iowa spending limit of $684,537 by $307,116. In that campaign, Cranston also managed to ring up more than $166,000 in bad checks, despite the public financing he received from the presidential matching funds.
Election reform packages inevitably become employment programs for the lawyers who interpret the rules for politicians, lobbyists and interest groups. One lawyer recently gave me his explanation of how election reform works: Election laws are revised, then after a while politicians find the loopholes, then new reforms are written.
The only problem with this explanation is that politicians don't find the loopholes after a while; they pick up on them almost immediately. After all, they wrote the laws; they should be able to squeeze through the loopholes long before the rest of us ever know they're there.
The key to reform is not another round of reforms and loopholes, and it certainly isn't asking taxpayers to foot the bill for campaigns. In order to further clean government, we must have competitive elections, and that means removing some of the structural advantages incumbents have.
The key to reform lies in limits on the number of terms a legislator may serve, reduced franking privileges, and neutral apportionment of congressional districts. These types of reforms would do more to ensure clean, competitive elections than any of the proposals that Alan Cranston and his allies have made.
Debra J. Saunders is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Daily News.