By United States Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV)
In politics, money, it seems, drives everything. Fundraisers are at the top of people’s schedules as they run for public office. That constant cycle of asking for money has helped to erode the people’s faith in the ability of their elected representatives.
In 1946, when I started out in politics, if we had the current system of funding campaigns, I would not be in the United States Senate. I came out at the very bottom of the ladder. I came out of a coal camp with my fiddle and my brain. I held firmly to my belief in our system of government, a system where a person who didn’t have anything, who was poor, who came from humble beginnings, could run for office. My father was a coal miner. He was honest, but he did not have great political connections. I just had a high school education. And yet the system that we had in that day allowed me–a coal miner’s son–to run for office. Could I have done that today? I’d go to the political leaders and tell them, “I’d like to run for the House of Delegates” or “I’d like to run for the House of Representatives.” Those leaders would look at me and say, “Who are you? Do you have any money?” I would have been out if it had depended on money. I would never have gotten to first base.
That’s the problem with today’s political system. The money cycle in politics too often corrupts political discourse. It makes us slaves to the dollar rather than the servants of the people we all aspire to be. If one doesn’t have the money, forget going to the House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate. And, unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court has given this system First Amendment protection. In Buckley v. Valeo, the Court made it extraordinarily difficult for the public to have what it wants: reasonable regulations of campaign expenditures which do not–either directly or indirectly–limit the ideas that may be expressed in the public realm. In fact, I would submit that such regulations would actually broaden the public debate on a number of issues by freeing it from the narrow confines dictated by special interest money.
Consider for a moment the sheer costs involved. According to the Congressional Research Service, aggregate costs of House and Senate campaigns increased eightfold between 1976 and 2004, from $115.5 million to $1.16 billion, while the cost of living rose threefold. Campaign costs for average winning candidates, a useful measure of the real cost of seeking office, show an increase in the House from $87,000 in 1976 to $1.0 million in 2004; a winning Senate race went from $609,000 in 1976 to $7.0 million in 2004. The figures are astounding, and lend themselves to the mistrust that people have for the political process.
The American people are more than aware that both political parties abuse the current system and that both political parties fear to change that system. Each party wants to preserve its advantages under the system. But the insidious system of campaign fundraising will eventually undermine the very foundations of this Republic. For our own sakes, and for the sake of the people, we must find a way to stop this political minuet. We must come to grips with the fact that the campaign finance system, in its current form, is simply unworthy of preservation.
I have spoken in the Senate many times about the exponential increase in campaign expenditures since I first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1958. It was not too long ago that Warren Buffet, one of the richest men in America, said that political access is “undervalued” in the campaign finance market. Campaign contributions will continue to increase until a “market valuation” is achieved, thus causing the cost of a reasonably effective campaign to continue to skyrocket. It already costs tens of millions of dollars to run an effective campaign for the Senate in many States. What do we tell a poor kid from the hollows who has the capacity and drive to be a good Senator? A campaign for the Senate will be beyond his or her personal means, and beyond the means of friends and associates. We must act to put the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Presidency within the reach of anyone with the brains, with the spirit, with the spine, and with the desire to go for it.
In 2002, the Congress tried again to rein in the out-of-control campaign costs, enacted the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002, more commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act. Making the most significant changes in the Federal Election Campaign Act since its creation in 1971, McCain-Feingold featured higher contribution limits, a ban on the raising of soft money by political parties and federal candidates, and a restriction on broadcast ads by outside groups in the closing days of an election. Most of the McCain-Feingold provisions survived a Supreme Court challenge (McConnell v. FEC, December 10, 2003).
However, there are loopholes in McCain-Feingold–and those loopholes are making for significant problems and still-escalating campaign costs. In the end, I expect that it will take a Constitutional amendment to finally put an end to the money chase in campaigns.
One of the great ironies of the campaign financing system is that it puts more distance between candidates and the very people they hope to represent. Campaigns of today are technologically sophisticated. They rely, increasingly, on mass media. The whole point of current campaigns has become raising enough money to pay to more people, more times, over the airwaves.
There is no argument that there is an efficiency consideration here. People’s lives today are complicated. They have to run from work, to school activities, to the grocery store or the dry cleaner, cook dinner, put the kids to bed, and so on, over and over again. Families do not have the time, or the inclination, to attend community functions like they used to attend years ago. I have had
recent campaign events in some of West Virginia’s communities where people still come out to hear candidates and to celebrate our electoral system. But, in our nation today, such events are the exception, not the rule.
So, to influence voters, candidates pay high-priced consultants to produce high-priced ads and to buy high-priced television and radio time to air them. The other side does the same. It is a vicious cycle that requires candidates to spend more and more time raising money and less and less time listening to the people they wish to represent.
The result is that, today, there are fewer rallies. There is less knocking on doors, less face-to-face time with the voters, less handshaking. No wonder the people think that politicians are out of touch; through the creative use of film and audio tape, politicians have made themselves intangible.
Some argue that money will find a way to control the process, regardless of what we do. I respond that a simple and straightforward limit on campaign expenditures is much more difficult to circumvent than the maze of regulations to which we have had to resort. I wonder, too, whether these opponents of campaign finance reform are willing to permit money to buy anything on the grounds that it is difficult to control.
Even without a constitutional amendment, we can, of course, tinker around the edges. But we cannot enact comprehensive legislation that will get to the heart of the problem. I wish we could. But the fact is we cannot get the kind of legislation we really need unless we first adopt an amendment to the Constitution.
Fear is a very terrible thing. Fear paralyzes, it clouds judgment. Fear of losing advantage is what has driven both parties to be reluctant to enact meaningful expenditure reforms. But the fixation with maintaining advantage is blinding us to the dangers to our credibility. Credibility is a precious commodity, more important to a politician than, yes, money! When we lose our credibility, no amount of money will enable us to buy it back. Already many of our citizens do not vote. They don’t feel that their vote counts. I hope that more public officials fear the further erosion of our democracy, not the loss of fleeting financial advantages.
Our democratic system of government is based on public trust. Nothing alienates that trust faster and more completely than the taint–or the suggestion of taint–connected with big money. Where, once, an individual election campaign for the Senate cost a few thousand dollars, such campaigns currently cost millions.
In 1958, I ran for the first time for a full term as a U.S. Senator from West Virginia, together with Senator Jennings Randolph, who was running for the Senate to fill the unexpired term of the late Senator M.M. Neely. The combined costs of that campaign for two U.S. Senate seats amounted to, roughly, $50,000.
The kind of campaign system that we have today sends the clear message to the American people that it is money, not ideas and not principles, that reigns supreme in our political system. We must bring into check the obscene spending that occurs in pursuit of public office, and put the U.S. Senate back within the reach of anyone with the desire to make a difference, the spirit of public service, the dedication, and the intelligence to serve.
By United States Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
Allen Loughry has issued a reminder that there are watchdogs and whistleblowers willing to defy intimidation and do the difficult and necessary work of defending our American ideals. He approaches his work with an idealism thought impossible for someone involved in politics so many years.
Few Americans believe their government to be a place of moral sanctity. Many accept corruption as the rule. Actual wrongdoing is not as flagrant as Hollywood movies would portray, but that subtlety also makes it more difficult to identify the real-life political villains. They do not lurk in the dark, dressed in black. They can be our neighbors, friends and coworkers. They are not necessarily bad people, but rather people who have been held to low standards a long time. They are merely playing the game that has evolved over years of transgressions going unchecked.
Dr. Loughry is not simply making a “naughty” list. He reaches beyond his examples and poses questions that seem like black and white moral issues on the surface, but upon closer inspection we are forced to examine the other side of the coin. He points to West Virginia, the Robin Hood of states, where gold was stolen to finance separation from Virginia and the Confederate ideology of slavery and separatism. We inevitably start to question, if the only way for good to prevail is to play the corruption game, does the end justify the means, and can the virtuous path ever be the successful path?
Ultimately, we find ourselves mired in Dr. Loughry’s Catch-22: to find political success it seems one has to play the game and ignore ethical quagmires, but by engaging in such behavior, one must accept the consequences of making voters apathetic and weakening our democracy.
Dr. Loughry provides us with disturbing evidence of widespread dishonesty, but also supplies a remedy. I believe virtue and success can coexist, and that belief has been proven to me time and time again by many of my colleagues. We cannot deny the existence of corruption, but we shouldn’t assume that every government official is in his or her position because of backroom deals and tainted elections. In every election season there are candidates looking to highlight their records rather than their opponents’ shortcomings, and on occasion there are babies kissed without a camera in sight.
Americans should vote for candidates we believe to be honorable and decent. In concert, lawmaking bodies should commit to making changes in election law that will diminish the opportunities for fraud. We may never have a perfect government, but Dr. Loughry reminds us we should never stop striving for one.