American politics: not overpriced but underfinanced

IN recent years money in the political process has become front-page news - though the news seems to be invariably more and more money raised, higher and higher campaign costs. Despite extensive election reforms enacted in the 1970s, allegations persist that money plays too significant a role in politics. Campaign costs are skyrocketing, it is said, and campaign contributions buy votes in the United States Congress and in state and local legislatures. Raising funds has become an all-consuming chore, critics claim. Political-action committees, or PACs, have generated special criticism. These campaign fund-raising vehicles, formed by corporations, labor unions, and membership organizations, have been routinely accused of influence buying, of encouraging their sponsors to exact political favors for political dollars, all under the protection of the law.

In the main I do not agree with these criticisms. Publicity to the contrary, I believe US election campaigns are underfinanced, not overpriced. Despite all we hear about high costs, money remains a scarce resource in politics; many campaigns, especially those of challengers, cannot raise money needed for the essentials of campaigning. In 1984 Americans spent more on chewing gum than they did on elective politics. The professionalization of politics represents irresistible and irreversible escalations of costs. The real problem is not the costs but finding acceptable ways of raising money candidates believe they need.

I do not accept the view that all or most - or even many - campaign contributions represent attempts to gain special favors. Abuses do occur. But I believe that contributing money to election campaigns has to be understood as an important form of participation in a democracy. Many millions of people now contribute; if still many millions more would give, candidates would not need to rely on large contributions or special interests. In this age of affluence, many prefer to give money than to volunteer their time.

Money is not the sole or even the most important political campaign resource; many other factors affect electoral and legislative results, including leadership and organizational ability, the predisposition of voters, the issues of the moment, the advantages of incumbency, and independent decisions of the news media.

A number of trends have emerged as campaign financing has developed in the post-Watergate era:

Reforms intended to limit the influence of wealthy contributors have in effect exchanged big donors for big solicitors. Fund-raisers with access to networks of individuals willing and able to contribute the maximum $1,000 to a federal campaign have assumed a place of importance once occupied in campaigns by individuals, such as insurance magnate W.Clement Stone and General Motors heir Stewart Mott, who could, under the old laws, personally underwrite significant portions of campaigns.

PACs have assumed roles in election campaigns once occupied by political party precincts. Geographic neighborhoods have been replaced as centers of activity and sources of values by occupational and issue groups with which individuals identify. The rise of PACs has occurred largely because the groups that sponsor them can provide the possibilities for meaningful political action once provided by now ideologically ambiguous political parties.

Modern political campaigns have spawned a new technocratic elite which has made the application of high technology to political campaigns an election prerequisite in campaigns for major office and in the process have increased political campaign costs. Dedicated amateurs have been all but elbowed out of campaigns by professional pollsters, media specialists, computer experts, election lawyers, and political accountants. Many of these professionals come from out of state, without local political roots.

Election law reforms are not neutral. Instead they are used as instruments to achieve political goals. They change political institutions and processes, sometimes in unforeseen, and not always salutary, ways. Don't discount the resourcefulness of politicians who, through legal avoidance or favorable interpretation of laws (sometimes with the agreement of regulators), can find ways to get around laws!

If there is any single impression I have formed after 30 years of monitoring political campaign fund raising and spending, it is that there are no panaceas here. All ambitions regarding political finance cannot be achieved by legal restrictions. But not all attempts at legal control are futile. We have come a long way, for example, in providing timely and accurate disclosure of campaign funds. At least the public's right to know the sources of funding has been satisfied.

The side that spends the most money does not always, or even often, win. In 1986 the Democrats regained control of the US Senate; five Republican incumbents were defeated, all of whom spent about twice as much as the challengers who won. A doctrine of sufficiency is at work, which means that candidates need enough money to campaign, but not necessarily more money than an opponent has. The problem is that it is impossible to know in advance how much is enough, so the tendency is to spend whatever is available and sometimes more.

We know the candidates prize votes more than dollars, but we also sense that most candidates cannot win votes without spending dollars. The problem is how to apply democratic principles to elections in a highly technological media age dominated by dollar politics. The electoral process presents a classic case of conflict between the democratic ideal of full public dialogue in free elections and the conditions of an economic marketplace. It is well to remember that the most costly campaigns are those in which the voters choose poorly because they are ill informed. For a candidate or party, the most expensive election is a lost election.

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