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#427 - Big-picture Organizing -- Part 7: Getting Money Out Of Politics, 02-Feb-1995

As we saw last week, during the past 20 years elections have turned
into money-raising contests. About 90% of the time (literally),
elections are won by the person who raises the most money. And the
money raised is huge: the average U.S. Senate race requires expenditure
of $3.9 million, and some candidates have spent upwards of $25 million
on a single contest. As a result, our elections are now largely decided
by the WEALTH PRIMARY --a money-raising contest that precedes the real
primary. Behind the scenes, the WEALTH PRIMARY determines who the
candidates will be.[1]

The major sources of campaign money are wealthy individuals and
corporations. Therefore, people who hold ideas unpopular with wealthy
individuals and corporations, are generally prohibited from running for
office, much less winning. Furthermore, after the election, the winners
must curry favor with wealthy individuals and corporations because they
need money for re-election. For example, the average U.S. Senator must
raise $12,500 each week for 312 weeks (6 years) to acquire the $3.9
million needed to win re-election. Where do you get $12,500 in
donations each week? Probably not from average Americans.

As a practical matter, this means that elected officials rub elbows
with the well-to-do on a regular basis, and change their ideas, as
needed, to release the necessary flow of cash. Or, alternatively,
elected officials ARE the well-to-do. For example, 26% of U.S. Senators
are millionaires, whereas only one-tenth of one percent of the general
public are millionaires. Conversely, no candidates for U.S. Senate in
recent memory have been poor--and none have descended into poverty
after taking office. Yet 15.3% of the general public is poor. As a
result, the spectrum of views of the American public is not fairly
represented by today's elected officials.

Nationwide, elections today are comparable to elections in some
southern states prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For example,
prior to 1964, some states discouraged African-Americans from running
for office by requiring payment of a high "filing fee." To run for
office in Texas, for example, you had to pay a "filing fee" ranging
from $1000 to $6300. In 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States,
in a case known as BULLOCK V. CARTER, declared that the Texas filing
fees violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. constitution. The
Court said high filing fees set up "barriers to candidate access to the
primary ballot, thereby tending to limit the field of candidates from
which voters might choose." The Court said, "the very size of the fees
imposed under the Texas system" gave the electoral system "a patently
exclusionary character." Many "potential office seekers lacking both
personal wealth and affluent backers are in every practical sense
precluded from seeking the nomination of their chosen party, no matter
how qualified they might be, and no matter how enthusiastic their
popular support," the Court said. As a result, the Court said, the
Texas system unfairly (and illegally) gave "the affluent the power to
place on the ballot their own names or the names of the persons they
favor." Two years later in another case (LUBIN V. PANISH) the Court
reaffirmed these views.

As we also saw last week, incumbents (those already in office) have a
tremendous advantage over challengers because public money subsidizes
the election campaigns of incumbents but not of challengers.
Furthermore, holders of private wealth seek to influence incumbents by
contributing to their re-election campaigns. As a result, in the U.S.
House of Representatives in 1992, for example, the average incumbent
had $692,000 to spend campaigning, while the average challenger had
only $155,000. Under these circumstances, incumbents can easily
overwhelm challengers --and do, almost 90% of the time.

Incumbents attract private money from two main sources: political
action committees (PACs) and wealthy individuals. Small contributions
(below $200.00 each) account for less that 20% of all campaign giving.

Direct contributions by corporations to candidates for federal office
have been illegal since the Tillman Act of 1907; to side-step this
prohibition, many corporations, trade associations, professional
groups, and other businesses sponsor political action committees that
collect funds from their employees or members and funnel them to
candidates. In 1992, PACs contributed $188 million, or 29% of the $659
million total spent in all federal elections. Business PACs outspent
labor PACs by 3 to 1. Furthermore, PACs give overwhelmingly to
incumbents and not to challengers. In 1992 the average House of
Representatives incumbent received $222,000 from PACs --MORE THAN THE

Contrary to what many people believe, wealthy individuals contribute
even more than PACs --$233 million, or 35% of the total in 1992. The
wealthiest 2% of Americans contributed 77% of this $233 million.

Of the total $659 million spent on federal elections in 1992, about 80%
($527 million) came from business interests, according to an analysis
by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. It naturally
follows that, in the give-and-take of passing new laws, business
interests are generally favored over the interests of average Americans
because, from a politician's perspective, businesses are paying the
piper, so they get to call the tune.

As a result, the wages of working people have steadily diminished while
corporate profits are setting records and executive salaries have gone
through the roof; environmental laws are being weakened or ignored and
environmentally-related illnesses are being permitted to increase; the
burden of taxes has been gradually but relentlessly shifted from the
wealthy and corporations onto middle-class Americans and the working
poor; so-called "free trade" laws are encouraging corporations to move
to the developing world where they can thumb their noses at the normal
constraints of civilized behavior; job security, retirement benefits,
and health insurance are becoming a thing of the past for millions of
Americans; home ownership is beyond the reach of more and more working
people; and all the while massive quantities of taxpayers' money are
being wasted bailing out the failed experiments of Wall Street
speculators and crooks.

The normal checks on the system --formerly available via the electoral
process --are no longer accessible to average Americans in large part
because of the corrupting influence of money in politics, especially
the money of corporations and the corporate elite.

In response to the Watergate scandal, in 1974 Congress passed the
Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) to limit contributions to
candidates for federal office. FECA was immediately challenged as an
infringement on first amendment rights; the plaintiffs argued that
"limiting the use of money for political purposes constitute[d] a
restriction on communication violative of the First Amendment, since
virtually all meaningful political communications in the modern setting
involve the expenditure of money."

In BUCKLEY V. VALEO, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the FECA law,
thus saying in effect that pumping private money into elections is a
form of free speech. This decision has allowed the wealthy to
positively shout in elections, drowning out the voices of the majority
of Americans --a situation clearly not consistent with our one-person-
one-vote democracy.

Even if BUCKLEY V. VALEO were never overturned, we could get money out
of politics with some straightforward reforms:

Remedy 1: A "Floor" of Public Financing: The first remedy would have
the federal government provide minimal public financing, coupled with
media vouchers, to all eligible congressional candidates to enable them
to conduct viable campaigns. Eligibility would be determined according
to some reasonable threshold of public support, demonstrated perhaps by
signatures on petitions. The level of financing could be set either in
relation to each congressperson's public subsidy, which is
approximately $200,000, or the amount of money spent by the winner in
the last election. Under this plan, publicly financed challengers could
still be outspent by candidates raising private funds; that is, public
money would guarantee a "floor" of public money and resources for non-
affluent candidates, but the sky would still be the limit in terms of
private money raised and spent.

Remedy 2: A voluntary system of total public financing: To address the
concerns that a floor of public financing will not secure the equal
protection rights of qualified non-affluent candidates competing with
privately-financed candidates, we could go a step further. Under this
plan, the government would not only establish a floor of public
financing but would also provide eligible candidates with additional
grants to match expenditures by privately-financed candidates that
exceed the established floor. This remedy, in effect, would establish a
system of total public financing of elections, thus getting rid of the
financial inequality of the old system.

This remedy would be voluntary. Candidates who chose to opt out of the
public system and compete instead in the wealth primary could do so. No
caps would be placed on their campaign spending. Yet, those opting in,
with the condition that they agree not to raise or spend any private
money in the primary and general elections, could rely on the escalator
of public financing for the protection of their rights to participate
in the electoral process on an equal and meaningful basis.

Remedy 3: A system of total public financing with mandatory spending
limits: The third remedy would be total public financing with mandatory
spending limits, thereby limiting the need for the government to
provide additional grants to match the expenditures of privately-
financed candidates. This third remedy would require a reversal of the

Our elections --the heart of our system of self-governance --have been
systematically corrupted by private wealth. As a result, America finds
itself in deepening trouble. Public financing of elections is a
solution that seems simple, fair and affordable. Campaign finance
reform is the key reform that makes other reforms possible. It is time
to get private money out of our elections.

--Peter Montague


[1] The role of wealth in elections has been documented in detail in
Jamin B. Raskin and John Bonifaz, THE WEALTH PRIMARY (Washington, D.C.:
Center for Responsive Politics, 1994). Available for $10.00 from Center
for Responsive Politics, 1320 19th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036);
telephone (202) 857-0044. Highly recommended.

[2] Larry Makinson, FOLLOW THE MONEY HANDBOOK (Washington, D.C.: Center
for Responsive Politics, 1994), pg. 4. Available for $10.00 from Center
for Responsive Politics, 1320 19th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036);
telephone (202) 857-0044. A step-by-step handbook for finding out who
finances the candidates in your elections --federal, state, and local.
Highly recommended for journalists and toxics activists.

Descriptor terms: campaign finance reform; congress; elections;
corruption; wealth; poverty; legislation; laws; legislative process;