Money has changed, but not corrupted, our political system

THE UNITED STATES invented modern democracy and has practiced it longer and more successfully than any other nation. For all its flaws, it works remarkably well. While mediating among the jumbled interests of a geographically, ethnically, racially, religiously, and economically diverse nation, it has preserved both freedom and stability. When asked about their political leaders, Americans {according to public opinion polls) often hold their noses. But when asked about their political system, they overwhelmingly express intense pride.

Any discussion of money’s role in politics needs to start with these fundamentals, because the critics of the status quo do not simply argue that the current system of campaign financing is imperfect. Increasingly, they contend that it menaces the American democratic achievement itself. As Elizabeth Drew concludes in her short book. Politics and Money: “We have allowed the basic idea of our democratic process— representative government—to slip away. The only question is whether we are serious about trying to retrieve it.”

To advance this argument is to shoulder a heavy burden. It does not suffice to demonstrate that money plays an important and not always healthy role in politics. No one has ever doubted that. Nor does it suffice to show that the current system is flawed. Almost everyone concedes that. The burden that Drew and other reform advocates assume is to persuade that money has attained unprecedented leverage over government behavior. And more: that there are possible reforms that would represent substantial improvements without aggravating current deficiencies or creating new ones.

The argument fails—utterly.

If Drew’s is the reformers’ best case, then there is no case. The Washington correspondent for The New Yorker (where most of this book first appeared), Drew has a reputation as one of Washington’s most intelligent and reflective journalists. To judge from much of her work, it is surely deserved. But she has obviously made campaign finance reform a crusade, and this book is less reportage (though it involved considerable interviewing) than polemic. It lacks any balanced view of the influences that move legislation. Drew asserts or implies that money is the prime driving force, even while providing only a few instances where money played a role at all. There is no reference to the substantial amount of scholarship on campaign finance, including Herbert Alexander’s comprehensive studies of the last six Presidential elections. Much of the evidence consists of quotations from partisans who agree with Drew or who make sweeping assertions that lack any historical perspective. And virtually none of this commentary is subjected to critical analysis.

 There are two reasons, nevertheless, for treating Drew’s tract seriously. The first is that it elicits agreement from large numbers of influential people. Many journalists, congressmen, and lawyer-lobbyists—all powerful opinionmakers about Washington—seem to accept that money is corrupting politics. Typical is this prepublication plaudit from Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward: “No one else has had the guts or the determination to open up this subject. Brilliant reporting. As a reporter, I am embarrassed I didn’t find this story myself.”

Even if the “story” is untrue—which it is—its constant repetition gives the appearance of truth and shapes public opinion. Drew’s New Yorker series is but one example of a general media drumbeat of criticism. (See, for instance, Mark Green’s “Political PACman,” TNR, December 13, 1982.) Played often enough and loud enough, the theme of corruption acquires respectability. It aggravates the very problem the reformers purport to be curing: the loss of public confidence in elected officials and governmental institutions. The aim, of course, is campaign reform.

 And therein lies the second cause for concern. For the logic of campaign reform implies fundamental, not cosmetic, changes. It strikes at a basic constitutional tenet: free speech. If free speech includes the right to seek political influence, it involves the right to spend. The Supreme Court took this position in Buckley v Valeo (a 1976 case challenges the 1974 election law), and it is simply common sense. If I am unhappy with my legislator, am I to be prevented from spending money in an effort to convince others of my position? If I want to influence my government, am I to be prevented from spending money to do so? And what more natural way than working to elect people who share my views?

 Problems obviously surface. Representative democracy presumes to represent people, not dollars. Moreover, people do not speak only as individuals but also as organized groups—interest groups. And interest groups are unequal in size, wealth, and, usually, influence. This part of the problem is not new. James Madison recognized it years ago. Calling interest groups “factions,” he argued that their power would be limited by natural conflicts and the mechanics of government. The division of power among two legislative houses and the executive and judicial branches would require compromise, groups acting “in unison with each other.” But if the provisioning of money has now become so vital to politics that Madison’s balance is lost, then irreconcilable conflicts arise among traditional values. Either free speech (including free spending) is compromised or the representative nature of democracy is eroded.

 Drew is convinced that we have reached this juncture and, therefore, entertains radical revisions in free speech. She argues that we need to “redefine what we mean by ‘freedom of speech,’ and [to] uncouple ‘the market-place of ideas from the idea of the ‘free market.’” In practice, she favors more public finacnign for campaigns and tighter controls on prive campaign spending. Justifying these, she approvingly summarizes an argument made by former Solicitor General Archibald Cox, a chairman of Common Cause who has argued campaign law cases. Cox, she writes, suggested that one way to deal with the proposition that spending money equals free speech would be to say that there are lots of different kinds of expenditures, and perhaps money is speech in the instance of a person spending money to publish or broadcast his own thoughts, while it is an entirely different thing when an organization raises money from all over the country and spends it to broadcast. The difference, he said, is that the money is collected nationally, and that it is used for much speech but few ideas.

 A measure of reformers’ obsession is that they have descended to these meaningless and essentially antidemocratic distinctions. Individuals may have a right to “free speech,” but organizations (collections of individuals) may have a lesser right. Some speech is good, but speech devoid of “ideas” (whose ideas?) may not be. Organizations locally financed may be more deserving than those nationally financed. Happily, however, we have not reached the juncture that Drew and other reformers suggest. To be sure, the political system is changing-—it always is and always has—but the changes have not demolished representative government, including Madison’s safeguards. No one seriously disputes that campaign (as opposed to legislative) politics needs more money than ever before. The critical questions are whether money’s new role fundamentally distorts politics and the opportunities for representation and influence.

 Depending on the standard of comparison, the amount of money now spent on elections is huge, reasonable, or small. In 1980, it totaled $1,203 billion, according to Alexander. Of this, almost half was spent on federal elections, $275 million for the Presidential campaign, and $239 million for congressional campaigns; the rest went for state and local races. As Alexander points out, the total equals about one-tenth of 1 percent of taxpayer money spent by government in fiscal 1980 ($958.7 billion)—which seems a small price—and only twice the advertising budget of Procter and Gamble ($649 million). On the other hand, campaign spending has outraced inflation and, compared with the recent past, totals are huge. By Alexander’s estimates, campaign spending increased by 759 percent between 1952 (when it totaled $140 million) and 1980, while general prices rose only 210 percent; campaign spending increased 183 percent between 1972 (the total: $425 million) and 1980 against a general price rise of 97 percent.

 These increases stem from basic changes in the political system. Since early in the century, party control over the election process has steadily diminished, and this trend has accelerated sharply since World War II. Party organizations were once almost entirely responsible for the selection of candidates and the running of campaigns. Political competition occurred within the party itself. Candidates fought strenuously for the party endorsement or the support of party chieftains. With the endorsement came huge organizational support—the big city “machines” being the best examples—and the automatic votes of thousands and millions of intense party loyalists.

 This system’s disintegration is an oft-told story. Central city political machines crumbled before suburbanization and the assimilation of first-generation immigrants for whom the parties provided patronage and a sense of identity. Depression-era political loyalties faded as government embraced the welfare state and the electorate changed. By 1980, two-fifths of the potential electorate was thirty-four or younger—that is, they hadn’t been born at the end of World War II. Finally, party organizations lost their legal prerogatives. Beginning early in the century, primaries (the first Presidential primary occurred in Florida in 1904) undermined their ability to control candidate selection.

 This turmoil produced a different style of campaign politics. Candidates were increasingly independent operators, shorn of well-oiled party organizations and reliable political loyalties. More voters considered themselves “independents,” and the party attachment of nominal Democrats and Republicans weakened. Ticket-splitting increased and so did the importance of ideas and personalities in campaigns. To compete for voters’ attention and allegiance, candidates relied increasingly on radio, television, direct mail, and newspapers; advertising now amounts to more than half the cost of most campaigns. To calibrate their media messages, candidates hired campaign consultants and the campaign consultants took opinion polls. All this costs money. Money— and all the things it can buy—has largely substituted for the lost organizational and psychological bases of campaign politics.

AT THE same time, government was involving itself in more aspects of American life. In addition to new social welfare programs, laws were passed affecting the environment, job safety, civil rights, pensions, product safety, and the handicapped. Programs were created to finance highways, mass transit, college buildings (and student loans), housing, scientific research and development, synthetic fuel plants, solar energy, hospitals, public television, and cultural events. Federal spending, as a proportion of the gross national product, rose from less than 4 percent in 1929 to more than 24 percent today; the number of pages in the Federal Register jumped from 2,355 in 1936 to 87,012 in 1980. As government became more narrow and detailed, so did interest-group politics. Groups mobilized to maximize the benefits from government programs or to minimize adverse side effects.

So there emerged, on the one hand, politicians needing more money—to respond to the new realities of campaigning— and, on the other, individuals and groups wanting more political influence— to respond to the new realities of government activity. That political contributions and spending began to march upward together is wholly unsurprising. The complexion and complexity of politics changed. Politicians reared under the old system reacted to the new pressures of money with disgust—a disgust amplified in the emotion charged atmosphere of Watergate and the illegal contributions to the Nixon White House. Congress passed campaign reform laws and produced a crazy quilt of restrictions and practices:

—Individuals can give up to Si,000 to a candidate in each primary and general election. An individual can also give up to $20,000 to a political party and up to $5,000 to individual political action Committees (PACs). All these limits are subject to an overall individual ceiling of $25,000 in gifts annually.

—PACs can contribute $5,000 to a candidate per election, with no overall ceiling. Nor are there limits on how much an individual or group, including PACs, can spend on activities—for example, television advertising—to elect a candidate, as long as the spending (known as “independent expenditures”) isn’t coordinated with the candidate. Congressional candidates can spend as much as they raise, and there are no limits on how much a candidate can spend from personal funds.

—Presidential elections operate under partial public financing. In the primaries, similar individual contribution limits exist, but candidates can qualify for matching federal subsidies if they achieve a specified level of individual giving. Once they accept subsidies, though, they face an overall spending limit, $17.7 million in 1980. In the general election, both candidates are entitled to federal subsidy, and if they accept, they can’t spend anything else. In 1980, the payment was $29.4 million each.

The restrictions are so intricate because some of the stricter limits im* posed by Congress in its 1974 law were struck down by the Supreme Court—in the Buckley v. Valeo decision—as violations of the First Amendment. Individual contribution limits were upheld on the grounds that Congress could prevent the appearance of undue influence by contributors on legislators, but, at the same time, the court said that total spending limits—on “independent expenditures” by individuals or total spending by congressional candidates— would impair free speech. But if candidates accepted public funds for their campaigns (they could, of course, refuse), they then subjected themselves to the spending limits imposed by Congress as a condition for receiving the funds. That’s why there are limits in Presidential, but not congressional, elections.

Whatever the limits, both Drew and Alexander agree that many are evaded and that the law’s spirit is easily subverted. One escape involves “independent expenditures.” In 1980, according to Alexander, 105 PACS and thirty-three individuals reported $16.1 million of this spending. Most of that (S13.7 million) was spent in the Presidential primary and general election, with Republicans benefiting from almost all of it. Typically, independent expenditures finance television, radio, or direct-mail advertising. The “New Right” National Conservative Political Action Committee is probably the best known user of independent expenditures.

ALTHOUGH this spending isn’t supposed to be coordinated with the candidate. Drew shows that this separation can be—and probably often is—a sham. Anyone wanting to aid a Presidential candidate needs to know the candidate’s latest poll results: that is, where the candidate is weak. Drew quotes Lyn Nofziger, the White House’s former chief political operative, about how the head of an “independent committee” in 1980 could find out: “I wouldn’t have to talk to Bill Casey [Reagan’s 1980 campaign director]. I’d have a friend of mine talk to Bill Casey. I wouldn’t have any problem getting that done. There’s no way in the world that if I’m running an independent campaign I’m not going to get the information I need, or Dick Wirthlin’s [the Reagan pollster’s] data.”

Another easy evasion lies in the states. Federal election laws don’t (and constitutionally can’t) regulate contributions to state and local parties for state and local elections. But, as Drew contends, the line between local and federal activity is often thin or nonexistent. If the state party registers voters during the year of a federal election, is that local or federal activity? When a local party increases television advertising knowing a large turnout will help its congressional and senatorial candidates— is that local or federal? Many states (California is one) allow unlimited contributions, so individuals can skirt the restrictions imposed by federal law. The national political parties can then shift their funds to other states. Drew correctly argues that this and the effect of “independent expenditures” mock the legislative intent of the 1974 law to limit spending in Presidential campaigns.

If easily evaded, the laws also have had perverse side effects. One probable consequence is an acceleration of campaign contributions and spending. By limiting individual contributions to candidates, the 1974 law almost certainly diverted giving to PACs. The few (mostly labor) PACs before 1974 had been established to abide by the prohibition, enacted early in the century, against direct campaign contributions from corporate and union treasuries. With separate organizations financed by separate contributions, the labor PACs—the best known is the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s Committee for Political Education (COPE)—skirted the restriction. But the PACs’ legal status was ambiguous, and both labor and business—many large firms were terrified by the disclosures of illegal contributions in 1972—wanted their standing codified. The 1974 law did this. PACs subsequently multiplied like rabbits, from six hundred at the end of 1974 to about thirty-four hundred by the end of 1982. This created an entirely new industry of fundraisers. Whereas parties and politicians had been primarily responsible for fundraising before, now there are armies of PAC professionals nurturing whole new markets of contributors. Even considering the restrictions, then, the 1974 law probably raised the level of political contributions.

All this has changed the flavor and sociology of politics. Washington is awash in political fundraisers. Direct mail is a new high art of campaigning. Power has passed from party bosses and fabulously wealthy contributors to the shrewd operatives who can mobilize lots of contributors. To Drew, former Democratic National Chairman Robert Strauss brags: “There hasn’t been anyone who can reach rich people the way I can.” But the serious questions about money’s effects on politics lie elsewhere. Drew knows the questions, but answers them with lax standards of evidence and logic.

ONE CLEAR question is whether money systematically and permanently distorts elections. One difficulty in answering this is that no one can easily say what constitutes distortion. Elections can be free and fair without being equal. In fact, they are rarely equal. And money is only one factor—and not always the most important factor— promoting inequality. Districts are often deliberately rigged to favor one party or the other. Well-known incumbents— with access to government contracts and power—face unknown challengers. Some candidates enjoy more party or interest group support; some candidates have a better press. Unequal contributions may sometimes offset other sources of inequality: for example, an incumbent’s better name recognition. In the end, the voters still decide.

But, with money becoming more important, a showing that one party could clearly outraise and outspend the other, say by a margin of 3 or 4 to 1, would create serious doubts about whether the system is working as intended. This, however, is simply not the case. In 1982, Democratic candidates in House elections raised an estimated $93.9 million. Republicans $90.9 million; in the Senate, Democrats raised $62.2 million, and Republicans $54.7 million. Since 1976, Democrats have outraised Republicans in three of four House elections and three of four Senate elections. But, generally, the differences have not been huge. (These figures exclude spending by candidates defeated in primaries, and the preliminary 1982 figures will probably be revised slightly downward later.)

Balance, of course, does not characterize all individual contests. But although money can sometimes be decisive, it clearly isn’t the only thing that is decisive. In last year’s congressional election, twenty-nine House incumbents (twenty-seven of them Republicans) were defeated. In twenty-one of those races, the winning candidate spent less than the loser. On the Senate side, winning candidates spent more than losers in twenty-four of thirtythree contests. But, in many close contests, the results were mixed. There were three open seats (California, New Jersey, and Virginia). All were won by the candidate who spent the most. On the other hand, two challengers won (those in Nevada and New Mexico) and both were outspent by the incumbent losers.

WHAT this signifies is that, for all the hoopla about advertising, consultants, and polling, campaigns haven’t yet deteriorated into scientifically programmed combats where victory goes to the candidate with the largest war chest. Challengers almost certainly need to attain at least a high-spending threshold to offset incumbents’ name recognition; in almost all the 1982 races where Republican incumbents lost, their opponents’ spending exceeded the Democratic average ($216,000). But once the threshold is passed, extra dollars don’t necessarily guarantee extra votes; diminishing (even negative) returns can easily set in. Campaigns are usually crazy. Mistakes are made, money is wasted. Incumbents’ reputations count heavily, but so does the national political mood. If money has changed campaign politics, it has hardly destroyed democracy.

GRANTING THIS, it’s still possible that the sources of campaign money have become so skewed that legislative politics is corrupted. Votes may not be bought and sold at the ballot box, but on the floor of Congress. Because this is the core of Drew’s case, you might reasonably expect her to devote the bulk of her book to its documentation. Not so. A relatively small part (perhaps 10 to 15 percent) of the book concerns itself with the allegedly decisive role money played in legislative outcomes. More to the point, campaign contributions alone hardly dictated the results.

Like most campaign reformers. Drew is most agitated by the rise of PACs, especially business and trade association PACs. It’s true that these PACs have assumed a larger share of total campaign financing. But this is partially the doing of the campaign reform law itself. Aside from legitimizing PACs, it also restricted, probably unintentionally, even modest individual giving. Between 1974 and 1982, prices roughly doubled, meaning that 1974’s $1,000 contribution was worth only about $500 in 1982. This almost certainly made it more essential for Congressmen to accept money from PACs and more attractive for politically active individuals to give to them.

Even so, PACs’ total share of campaign funds has probably not risen as quickly as commonly assumed. Individual fundraising still accounts for the lion’s share of congressional funds. In 1982, PACs accounted for about 29.3 percent of the total for winning candidates, up from 22 percent in 1976. In the House, the proportion rose from 25.6 percent to 34.2 percent; the comparable Senate figures were 14.8 percent in 1976 and 21.9 percent in 1982. And even these figures do not imply anything about legislative influence, because PACs are remarkably diversified. They come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors. In 1980, corporate PACs accounted for about a third of the total and labor PACs for about a quarter; but there were also PACs from trade associations (also about a quarter), PACs set up by independent political groups, agricultural cooperatives, and members of Congress (including Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives). In total, Democratic candidates received slightly more from PACs than Republicans— $42.8 million against $36.4 million—because labor PACs favored Democrats by an 18 to 1 margin.

THE ACID TEST lies in legislation. What happens in Congress? An example of Drew’s tunnel analysis involves oil provisions in the massive 1981 tax cut. As she portrays it, these resulted primarily from a “bidding war” for oil campaign contributions. Although the original White House tax bill contained a small pro-oil section, the Democrats sweetened it considerably. They hoped. Drew says, to reclaim their share of oil money, which she says had shifted heavily to the Republicans. The Republicans retaliated by sweetening the proposal even further. When the bidding was over, the bill contained tax relief, rising to $3.6 billion in fiscal 1986, for oil interests. Thus, money moves legislation.

There was indeed a bidding war, but of a different sort: over votes more than contributions. At the time, the House was torn between White House and Democratic tax bills. Both contained significant individual and business cuts, although the amounts and the distributions differed. The real question was power: could the Democrats control the House, where they were nominally the majority party? Once the House leadership decided it wanted a Democratic bill at all costs, the swing Congressmen who would determine the bill’s fate acquired enormous bargaining power. And this group—consisting heavily of conservative Democrats, quickly labeled “Boll Weevils,” and including many from oil states—used its power accordingly.

Of the forty-eight Democrats who ultimately voted for the Reagan tax bill (the Republicans ultimately prevailed), twelve came from Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. In 1980, these three states accounted for 61 percent of U.S. oil production. Although Drew discusses the bill as if it benefited only oil producers, much of the tax relief went to royalty owners, who own land on which oil is produced for a fee (usually 12.5 percent). Estimates of royalty owners vary from five hundred thousand to 2.5 million—the smaller number is probably more accurate—but they’re concentrated in oil-producing states. As one Hill staffer puts it: “Oil filters down throughout the whole district. Even people who don’t have a direct interest in oil have an indirect interest, because of its economic importance. You get a political orientation that is pro-oil.” But had the Democratic leadership contested the White House tax proposal with a philosophical alternative—conceding tactical defeat, instead of being bludgeoned into submission—the Boll Weevils would never have acquired negotiating leverage.

An even more important omission mars Drew’s account. No one denies that independent oil producers have long used campaign contributions to further their own ends. But if anything, their influence was waning in the 1970s. For most of the decade, the government controlled domestic oil prices and prevented producers from reaping most benefits of higher world oil prices. When controls were finally removed— having been opposed by most economists and by Europe and Japan, which saw low prices feeding America’s oil gluttony—Congress limited producers’ gains by imposing a windfall-profits tax in 1980. The entire 1981 struggle was to lighten, not eliminate, provisions of the windfall tax. The independent producers and royalty owners were fighting a rearguard action. They did influence policy—but only at the margin. In the 1981 tax bill, the oil provisions accounted for 1.5 percent of the total estimated revenue loss.

Most of Drew’s other examples founder on similar complications. She cites the efforts of the American Medical Association to have Congress prevent the Federal Trade Commission from reviewing potentially price-fixing practices of professional associations. But, as Drew offhandedly notes, the A.M.A. proposal failed. She cites an effort by maritime interests to have more oil transported in American vessels. But that failed, too. She cites passage (also as part of the 1981 tax law) of the All Savers Certificate for savings and loans associations, a scheme she rightly describes as ill conceived. But its approval stemmed not so much from campaign contributions as other factors: first, the identification of the savings industry with housing; and second, widespread fears that, if the industry wasn’t helped, numerous bankruptcies would result. In case after case, the actual story is more complicated than Drew’s story.

Her list also omits most major issues: Social Security, defense policy. Medicare and medical costs, overall economic management. No one has yet seriously contended that campaign contributions dominate policies in these areas, though surely “special interests” are involved. The issues are simply too entangled in popular passions, prejudices, and conflicting political philosophies. Individual defense projects may subsist on vested interests—nothing new—but overall defense spending clearly reflects other pressures.

 Far from being “brilliant” journalism, Drew’s reporting is precisely the kind that young reporters ought to be warned away from vigorously. It involves selective and misleading use of evidence, an overreliance on self-serving quotes, and an absence of critical analysis. She approvingly quotes a favorite one-liner by Senator Robert Dole, Republican of Kansas: “There aren’t any Poor PACs, or Food Stamp PACs or Nutrition PACs or Medicare PACs.” But, of course, there is a food stamp program, a Medicare program, and a substantial array of welfare programs. They were enacted because they were thought to be good ideas and, even if recently trimmed, they survive because people still believe them to be good ideas and because they have substantial constituencies.

Just because moneyed interests swarm all over Capitol Hill (and they do) does not mean that money rules the roost. In fact, PACs tend to check each other. When one interest organizes a PAC, competing interests do likewise. Even then, there are other checks on their power. One is the spotlight of public attention focused by the press, groups like Common Cause, and other politicians. Another is the obstacle course of enacting any legislation. American democracy is still working to accommodate conflicting interests and ideals. It is not perfect, but the Madisonian mechanisms have survived.

A CHARITABLE observer might convict Drew and fellow reformers of nothing more than sloppy analysis. Like Drew, most reformers are intelligent and well intentioned. Their numbers include energetic and reflective younger members of Congress. Nor is their unease and outrage difficult to understand. Their analysis springs from their nerve endings. Just as some people dislike fast-food restaurants, they detest the taste and feel of the new politics. Drew does not like Washington’s nightly fundraisers. She thinks it demeaning, degrading, and distracting that elected representatives spend their time dealing with anything so crass as money. She abhors the lobbyists infesting Capitol Hill with their wads of PAC funds. It simply offends her sensibilities.

But this distaste produces a mentality far more threatening to the national political tradition than the sins of campaign finances. The attempt to deny money’s new place in politics is futile— just as it was futile to deny the emergence of big city machines—but the effort entails heavy costs. The most obvious is the smothering of campaigns in bureaucratic tedium. Alexander drily observes that federal election law increasingly resembles the tax law, with the Federal Election Commission “doing for politics what the Internal Revenue Service does for taxes.” This, he notes, “increases the need for professionals— accountants, lawyers and other skilled individuals—to help candidates” comply with complex regulations, and it may “chill enthusiasm for citizen participation . . . since non knowledgeable amateurs may easily violate the law.”

A MORE SERIOUS defect is to undermine the moral authority of political leaders and the political process. If one lesson emerges clearly from Drew’s account, it is the impossibility of enacting campaign reform laws that will not be speedily subverted. The ease with which the limits on Presidential spending were evaded—via “independent expenditures” and state party spending—underscores that. Because politics now increasingly requires spending (as opposed to volunteer efforts or organizational commitment), legislated restrictions invite circumvention. If spending through one channel is curtailed, it will simply pop up—with some delay and difficulty, perhaps— elsewhere. The capping of individual contributions and the skyrocketing of PAC spending is but one example.

To enact laws whose failure can be predicted is an act of extreme political and legal irresponsibility. It means government creates unrealistic and unmaintainable moral standards. Candidates and political professionals are immediately thrust into unavoidably compromising positions. They can strictly abide by the letter and spirit of the law—an act of high virtue and possibly political suicide. Or they can examine the law to see how it can be stretched, twisted, and avoided. Perhaps, in the first flush of reform, virtue prevails. But as time passes and evasions become more widespread, the taboos against them diminish and the necessity of conforming increases. The participants in this process become steeped in either cynicism or guilt. When the public recognizes the gap between enacted standards of behavior and actual practices, esteem for elected officials suffers. Reformers fan the disillusion, declaring politics “corrupt” and proclaiming they are trying to reestablish the government’s moral authority. Actually, they are unwittingly destroying it.

In practice, reform risks enactment of politically self-serving or destructive legislation. Current proposals follow two strands: limits on campaign spending, and public financing of congressional elections. If you are an incumbent, you have an obvious interest in spending limits. This is not immediately apparent, because, on average, incumbents have traditionally raised and spent more than challengers. For incumbents to create a limit, then, seems a self-imposed handicap. But average results are not what matter. In most congressional elections, only a portion of the races (typically, many fewer than half) are genuinely competitive, involving either open seats or vulnerable incumbents. In these races, extra spending is one way—but not the only way—that a challenger might actually win. To choke off this possibility is to provide incumbents with extra insurance in a game where they already are overwhelming favorites. In recent elections, roughly nine of ten House members and seven of ten Senators seeking reelection actually have won.

THE OTHER extreme solution—barring private campaign spending and relying on public financing—runs an opposite danger. It subsidizes challengers, penalizes incumbents, and, therefore, risks unsettling the process of legislating. By trying to equalize spending, it deprives the incumbent of advantages—support by satisfied constituents, pleased interest groups—that a conscientious representative might reasonably expect. At the same time, it makes challenging more attractive by removing one large obstacle: fundraising. And, finally, it enhances the challengers’ prospects of victory. No one can say whether more challengers would actually win, but, almost certainly, incumbents would become more obsessed— if that is possible—with electioneering as opposed to legislating. Inevitably, Congressmen would seek to win the loyalty of groups that might finance independent election efforts on their behalf. This suggests new levels of sham, exertion, and influence brokering. Drew, among others, seems concerned that the current system of campaign finance claims too much of a representative’s time and psychic energy, But public financing is likely to mean less continuity, reflection, and independence in government, not more.

The major proposals now being advanced mix these extreme alternatives in ways that are so complicated that they are not worth describing. But all seem vulnerable to precisely the sort of evasions that have characterized their predecessors. One common proposal is to limit the amount of contributions a candidate could accept from PACs to, say, $90,000 for House candidates. It is not clear, of course, whether this would limit the influence of individual PACs. Suppose, for example, that I am on the banking committee and have received money from banking PACs. Suppose, then, that PACs for brokerage houses (whose interests often conflict with banks’) want to contribute but I have already reached my limit. When my committee considers legislation affecting both banks and brokers, am 1 more or less beholden to banks than if I had accepted contributions from both sets of PACs? In any case, PAC restrictions seem likely to spur other campaign activities on the part of spurned groups. The most obvious are greater “independent expenditures” or more contributions to state parties.

COPING with these contradictions risks intruding on free speech, a subject Drew treats casually. At some points, she ambiguously suggests limits on political groups that, simply put, she just doesn’t like. For example, she deplores the activities of the National Conservative Political Action Committee and the Congressional Club, a PAC maintained by Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina. The massive activities of these groups, she argues, go “beyond political expression . . . they manipulate people’s desire for political expression, and in a way that deliberately distorts the issues.” These groups, she says, “are not the same as grass-roots movements that form around an issue. These committees are highly skilled, directed organizations that use people’s feelings about certain issues to gain influence.”

This is a mind-boggling train of thought. NCPAC and the Congressional Club differ from “grass-roots movements that form around an issue,” yet they “use people’s feelings about certain issues to gain influence.” Can anyone make sense of that? To follow Drew’s thinking to its logical conclusion is to suggest rules for restricting what she believes is demagoguery (as opposed to legitimate political expression) and inappropriate “highly skilled, directed organizations” (as opposed to appropriate “grass-roots” groups). Somehow, one suspects, these are distinctions never contemplated by the Founding Fathers.

Ultimately, the cause of reforming campaign finances leads to dead ends because it clings to a primitive, unrealistic, and even undesirable view of representative government. “Special interests” is one of those over-used phrases that is simultaneously descriptive and deceptive. It is descriptive in the sense that the interests of these groups are usually narrow and often selfish. It is deceptive in the pejorative implication that the term naturally carries. The burden—and the glory, too—of modern American democracy is the proliferation of these groups. Their expansion is the natural result of the post-Depression growth of government spending and authority. If democracy is people’s right to be heard on issues that engage their interests and emotions, then government’s growth could have had no other effect. Because government interferes more, it is interfered with more. Because the nature of its intervention has become more narrow and detailed, so has the nature of the political reaction.

The inevitability of special interests and their political activism underlines the permanent importance of one campaign reform enacted in the early 1970s: disclosure of election contributions. Secret free speech is an illogical and almost comical concept. The disclosure of contributions not only exposes the motives of politicians to public scrutiny but also enables competing interests to mobilize. But, otherwise, most campaign reforms represent a futile effort to reverse irreversible trends. Supposing, against all logic, that the campaign activities of “special interests” could be curbed, would that end the problem? Of course not. It would simply intensify Washington lobbying and grass-roots campaigns to influence specific decisions. Banks’ successful effort to repeal the withholding of interest and dividends may be a forerunner of this sort of effort.

More important, the prejudice against special interests strikes at the heart of the democratic process. One person’s special interest is another’s crusade. The function of politics is not only to govern in the general interest and to reconcile differences among specific interests; it is also to provide outlets for political and social tensions. People often accept governmental outcomes with which they disagree if they feel they had a chance to influence the process. In a nation as diverse as the United States, it is unhealthy to place too many restrictions on these outlets. The risk is making people believe that government is even more inaccessible and unresponsive than they already do.

No one, of course, should pretend the resulting system is problem-free. It isn’t. The growth of government authority and political activism has led to severe tensions, most obvious to Congressmen. They are overburdened with work, confronted with more issues than they can possibly master, pestered by the word is out on more constituencies than can possibly be satisfied, and—given the certainty of disappointed suitors—presented with the constant threat of organized opposition to their reelection. Within Congress, the multiplication of government programs and interest groups has made the creation of enduring coalitions more difficult. Combined with other changes—declining party loyalty, the weakening of parties and (within Congress) committee chairmen, the fading of Depression-era attitudes—these shifts have made politics more difficult and less secure. Power has been fragmented or, in Drew’s word, splintered. At the same time, powerful and often contradictory popular expectations of government performance have emerged concerning everything from Social Security to the environment.

The convergence of these trends—the diffusion of power and increased public demands—accounts for much of government’s floundering and failure over the past decade. On the one hand, government faces paralysis: a collision of competing interests so severe that nothing happens. (In late 1982, one Congressman described Congress’s inability to revise the Clean Air Act to Drew this way: “The stalemate has been caused 50 percent by industry and 50 percent by environmentalists. Congressmen on the committee say, ‘Hey, do we really have to act on this this year?’ “) On the other hand, there looms the sort of pervasive contradiction that compels government to act in ways that are ultimately self-defeating. The clearest illustration is the tax system: the proliferation of special tax provisions has reduced public confidence in the system, while simultaneously spurring new demands for more special relief which, once enacted, further erode public confidence.

The picture can be dispiriting. In part it reflects the inability of political leaders—of both parties—to find new themes that cut across the special interests of individuals, groups, and corporations and provide a new basis for building coalitions. This is the ongoing drama of government, but it should not be mislabeled. The system is struggling, but it is not corrupt. 


This article originally ran in the September 5, 1983 issue of the magazine