The Money Chase

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Tuesday, September 17, 2002
One revealing comment the experts make in assessing political races is, “Follow the money.” If you know relatively little about a particular race or if it seems too close to call, look to see which candidate has raised the most money and that’s your likely winner. That’s not invariably true, but it usually is. 

With the congressional campaign season now upon us, concern is again being raised about money in politics and the high cost of running for Congress. That concern is anything but new. Indeed, even before there was a Congress and the Constitution was still being ratified, critics were arguing that too much money would be required to run for the House seats. 

The costs of running for Congress have skyrocketed in recent decades, particularly with the high price of television ads. When I first ran for the House in 1964, my total campaign budget was $30,000; my final campaign, in 1996, cost $1 million. The current system of financing congressional elections is a problem, and a serious one, for a variety of reasons. 

Members of Congress must spend an enormous amount of time fundraising. Raising $4 million for an average Senate campaign, for example, means raising $15,000 every week over the Senator’s six year term. The money chase distorts the political process, crowding out other activities like writing laws, thinking about public policy, or meeting with ordinary voters. It also has a major impact on challengers. Incumbents know that the way to scare off competition is to raise a lot of money, and it has become a chief campaign tactic. Fundraising can also be an unpleasant task. Hubert Humphrey once called the chase for campaign money “a disgusting, degrading, demeaning experience." 

In addition, many who contribute money are concerned about a “shakedown” atmosphere. They often feel they cannot get their views across unless they contribute generously to politicians they may dislike. Once they contribute, donors use their contribution to gain access to members and to encourage them to see their issues in a sympathetic light. 

The rising flood of money that flows into campaigns also undermines general public trust in the political system. Many Americans feel it is money, not ideas and not principles, that reigns supreme in our political system. I often heard people say that the political process was run by the moneyed interests, so they saw little reason to vote. Cynicism is always the worst enemy of democracy, and it has certainly been bolstered by the campaign finance system. 

Changing the campaign finance system is terribly difficult. The blunt fact is that most members of Congress and both political parties prefer the system under which they were elected over some untested scheme that might replace it. It is a system they know how to work for their advantage, and under which they have risen to the top. They are understandably reluctant to change it. Moreover, it is very difficult to devise a system that will reduce the disproportionate influence of money in politics and still not trample on constitutional rights to express political views. Historians of Congress have noted that the ingenuity of donors and the needs of candidates have hindered almost every attempt to curb high campaign spending, and I think that’s an accurate assessment. 

Our failure to have effective campaign finance laws in this country represents a major failure in American public policy. It diverts members’ attention, makes races less competitive by scaring off strong potential candidates, and raises doubts about the integrity of the legislative process. We have a campaign finance system today that is broken, and gradually eroding the public’s trust and confidence. It is a slow-motion crisis, but it is a crisis. 

My own personal view is that the only real solution will involve partial public financing of congressional elections, as we have done for the presidential elections and as many other nations and several states do for their legislative races. Providing an appropriate level of public funds for candidates limits overall spending, takes some of the immensely time-consuming burden of fundraising away from candidates, makes elections more competitive, and reduces the power of well-funded groups. I understand that my view is not popular and that providing taxpayer funds for congressional races is a tough sell with the public. But I believe it will become more popular as people gradually come to understand the powerful influence of money on the process and the extent to which money undermines representative democracy and a government of, by, and for the people. 

But as we try to reform the system, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It is not possible to enact a perfect, sweeping campaign finance reform bill today and perhaps not anytime soon. Yet the worst abuses can be dealt with one by one. Just as Congress and the President did with the recent curbs on “soft money” contributions to political parties, we simply must keep at it and address the abuses and plug the loopholes in the law as they become evident. A long journey proceeds one single step at a time. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)