The cost of winning over voters: $3 billion

The election campaign now just ending is by far the most expensive in history. The role of money in politics is skyrocketing.

To Scott Harshbarger, the flood of special-interest campaign money has meant "an erosion of democracy." The president of Common Cause warns that the idea of one person's vote being worth that of any other person's is being replaced by a concept that "equates your civic worth with your net worth."

The major political parties, Mr. Harshbarger says, act "more like glorified money drops" than organizations devoted to getting out the vote and bolstering democracy.

And big campaign contributors don't give with "a grand interest in the democratic process or civic pride." They are "paying to play," says Harshbarger. "It is all about the buying of Congress and the presidency. They have a huge interest in who controls Congress and who controls the presidency."

During this 1999-2000 campaign, candidates, parties, ideological groups, special business interests, and others have spent $3 billion to influence voters.

That's up from $2.2 billion in 1995-96.

In 1998, $1 million or more of campaign funds was spent on each of 73 House races. This time, it could be 138 such races.

All these numbers come from The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington group that keeps tabs on campaign donations and spending.

Larry Makinson, executive director of the center, calls many of the campaign contributors "investors." They expect a return from their money for their specific special interests.

If the Democrats win, the trial lawyers will be happy, the unions dancing in the street, and Hollywood rejoicing.

If the victors are Republicans, the drug firms will cheer, the oil and gas companies will be delighted, and many other businesses will make merry.

"No matter who wins, these contributors are going to walk to Washington after the election with a load of IOUs in their briefcases that they will be seeking to cash in," Mr. Makinson says. It is not just access to the politicians they buy, he adds. "It's a sympathetic hearing for their cause."

The press and others, he adds, should be bird-dogging Congress in the new year to observe "what kind of return these investors are going to get for their $3 billion."

While in office, politicians deny that campaign contributors buy their votes. When they leave office, some talk more frankly of how they hated raising funds and of that money's influence.

In this campaign, up to Oct. 1, Republicans received $496 million from business and $3.8 million from labor; Democrats $340 million and $52 million. Overall, Republicans raised a lot more campaign money.

One major fundraising trend has been the ballooning of "soft money" to about $500 million. It amounted to $45 million in the 1988 campaign and $262 million four years ago.

This money from companies, unions, the rich, and others can be given in unregulated amounts for so-called "issue ads." They can extol a candidate for his or her positions, but must avoid the words "vote for" or "vote against" to escape federal limits.

Fundraisers have concentrated their efforts on attracting big money, and paid less attention to those offering $100 or $500.

"They have gone after the wealthiest Americans they can find and those most engaged with special interests," says Makinson.

One result, charges Harshbarger, is that some key issues, such as child poverty, the huge inequality in incomes, and reform of the criminal justice system, are largely ignored in the campaign.

"If we want to have democracy prevail over dollars, campaign-finance reform is the first step," he says.

In the last Congress, campaign reform measures were passed in both houses of Congress. The one proposed in the Senate by Senators John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin was blocked by a filibuster.

Vice President Al Gore promises to make the McCain-Feingold bill his first proposal to Congress. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has a reform plan, which Common Cause views as inadequate since it would not ban soft money from individuals - mostly well-to-do business people.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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