Filthy Lucre | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Filthy Lucre 

The perils of trying to get money out of politics

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

By Harold Henderson

During the first three months of 1996 Nancy Kaszak was probably the most systematic panhandler in Chicago. Every day she spent more than 13 hours making 400 phone calls asking people to give her money to campaign for Congress in the Fifth District. "That's a call every two minutes," she says. "I spent 75 percent of my campaign on the phone. At the high point I had four staff people helping me.

"I called everybody in my law-school graduating class. I called every woman law partner in the city. I called every woman professional I could find. I called back seven or eight times if there was no answer. I was developing a permanent facial blemish and a crick in my neck, until I finally got a headset."

Kaszak knew about political action committee money. "It's a lot easier to fill out a questionnaire for $5,000 [the maximum political-action-committee contribution allowed under federal law] than it is to make a day's worth of phone calls," she says. But because Kaszak's views weren't very different from those of her primary opponent, Rod Blagojevich, few political action committees (other than those backing women) took an interest in her. With the PAC avenue largely closed, Kaszak dialed for dollars.

"No one takes you seriously unless you raise money," she says. "Political insiders all wrote me off until I raised $350,000. Then, all of a sudden, people who had never talked to me before started saying, 'That's a lot of money.'" By the end of the race, she says, she'd pulled in close to $900,000--more than Blagojevich. (Under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, there's no limit on campaign spending in federal elections.) But Blagojevich got more votes and went on to defeat Republican incumbent Michael Flanagan in November.

"When I ran for state representative," Kaszak muses, "the most I ever raised was $100,000." And since Illinois places no ceiling on campaign contributions, she was able to raise that amount in fewer, larger bites. Running for Congress was altogether different. The Fifth Congressional District--roughly eight times the size of Kaszak's 34th Illinois house district--is way too big to canvass in person. And congressional races fall under federal campaign laws, which limit individual contributions to $1,000. "After the campaign was over, people I used to see at el stops and grocery stores during my state campaigns said, 'I never saw you during the [congressional] campaign.' It's true. I was on the phone."

It sounds terrible. But Kaszak doesn't seem to have lost any zest for politics. She talks more like someone emerging from a roller-coaster ride than a train wreck. "It takes tremendous chutzpah to call somebody you don't know, ask them to give you $1,000, then ask if you can pick up the check that afternoon--and do it all in two minutes." And then do it again. "But it is one way of campaigning. I talked to a lot of people, learned their issues, broadened my knowledge."

Kaszak knows money is a problem in politics. Still, she has no pat solutions. "At some point we need to be able to say stop!" But how? "No matter what the system is, people will find a way around it."

Kaszak's predicament shows that money and politics are a questionable mix. Paradoxically, it also shows that reform and politics are also a questionable mix: if Congress hadn't reformed the process in 1974 by outlawing individual contributions over $1,000, Kaszak could have raised her money faster and spent more time campaigning at el stops than in professional offices.

One obvious solution is to pick up where Congress left off in 1974 and try to limit total campaign spending. Then the candidates wouldn't have to raise so much, right?

Maybe. This idea seems easy, especially at a time when most people are disgusted by disclosures of foreign and "soft" money contributions in the recent presidential and congressional campaigns. But the current mess at the federal level stems in part from the very money-limiting reforms Congress passed more than a generation ago. The post-Watergate reformers in 1974 wanted to reduce the influence of big donors. They had no intention of making Nancy Kaszak wear a headset. But that's what they did.

The general approach of the current McCain-Feingold bill--cosponsored by both Illinois senators and now the darling of most campaign finance reformers--is to restrict money even more, by banning PAC contributions and offering incentives for candidates to limit overall campaign spending. But its authors' good intentions don't guarantee good results, as University of Minnesota political scientist Frank Sorauf argued in an on-line discussion sponsored by the Brookings Institution.

"First," Sorauf said, restricting money "will make it harder than ever for challengers to raise the funds necessary to mount competitive campaigns....Second, by making money scarcer, the bills would make it more valuable...giving the contributors of the scarcer money a greater potential leverage in the relationship. And finally, especially by banning PACs, it...would drive organized money out of disclosure; instead of knowing what interests it came from, it would appear to come simply from individual contributions."

Former Democratic National Committee chair David Wilhelm offered a similar list of concerns at a May 19 forum hosted by the local group Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century. He concluded by pleading, "I just want everybody to think these things through."

For something that many reformers think shouldn't mix with politics, money has long been a factor on the American political scene. It has taken on different roles in different eras with different political cultures--cultures California sociologist Michael Schudson describes in a forthcoming book, part of which is now on the Web. Two centuries ago only wealthy, white male landowners stood for office. In colonial Virginia, for instance, property owners would gather at the courthouse and vote by physically lining up with their candidate. Each candidate would offer his supporters a glass of rum punch, and the deed was done.

Beginning around the 1830s the process became less genteel, more democratic--and more expensive. More people could vote, more people could run for office. (Muddy-booted supporters of Andrew Jackson could even walk around in the White House.) To campaign you began to need handbills, monster rallies, torchlight parades, "walking-around money" for voters, preprinted ballots for the party faithful to cast, an organization to distribute them, and money to pay for it all.

The Democratic and Republican parties evolved into competing patronage machines and rallying points. Issues became secondary. Thousands of federal jobs changed hands every time one party took over from the other. The parties financed their operations by having all jobholders kick back a portion of their pay. (In 1878 the Republican congressional committee got 90 percent of its money from these "assessments" on federal officeholders.) Politics was more like following the White Sox than deliberating the merits of ethanol subsidies.

Early in this century that too began to change, as Progressives in both parties promoted the idea of voting as individual expression on issues--"I vote for the man, not the party." (This was just one of a host of moralistic reforms pushed by the turn-of-the-century Progressive movement, which included Jane Addams, Robert LaFollette, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.) Over time--very slowly in Chicago--patronage power and party control withered away. Today most candidates don't go out of their way to mention their party affiliation, they raise most of their own money, they compete with each other in primary elections (themselves a Progressive-era innovation) rather than wait for the party to give them their turn. As free agents, today's "entrepreneurial candidates" are on their own in a way that 19th-century politicians almost never were.

In short, American political campaigns have taken place in three different cultures--the patriarchal culture of the 18th century, the patronage culture of the 19th century, the Progressive culture of the 20th century--which puts some perspective on today's furor over money in politics.

For starters, the enthusiastic rallies and long speeches of the 19th century took place in a patronage culture (and one that was starved for entertainment compared to ours). It would be misleading to look back fondly on those times as if they happened in a Progressive era. Few of the hearties who came out to cheer Rutherford B. Hayes were informing themselves on public policy. Democracy can flourish--has flourished--without a well-informed electorate voting on the issues. That's just one kind of democracy--a Progressive ideal, not a law of nature.

More important, this history shows that, compared to a century ago, Progressive reform has largely succeeded in its goals. Individuals have superseded parties, and issues have superseded party affiliation--and most politically aware people can't imagine it any other way. (Other forces, such as technology, helped speed the change.) Ironically, this success has made money more important than ever. Today most party organizations, where they exist at all, are fragile, kickbacks are illegal, traditional patronage is down (though not out). There are more voters, they move around a lot, and they're fickle. To win elections, you don't need an army of city workers knocking on doors--the bane of Progressives in the Teddy Roosevelt era. Instead you need TV ads, and for them you need money--the bane of the Progressives' grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the Bill Clinton era.

Of course money fueled the old system of patronage democracy, but it did so through "mediating institutions" such as big-city machines. The machines distributed jobs and garbage cans to ordinary people, as well as aid to aspiring politicians. Now that the old system is mostly gone, most folks have to buy their own garbage cans--and aspiring politicos need to imbibe the fuel directly.

And imbibe they do. During the 1990s politicians have raised and spent money in unprecedented and still increasing amounts. Congressional campaign spending jumped from $446 million in 1990 to $726 million in 1994. In Illinois, state lawmakers spent $9.5 million getting elected in the fall 1990 election, $18.5 million in 1994, and $23.5 million in 1996.

Is a little over $2 per Illinoisan every other year really too much money to spend on campaigns? On the one hand, maybe not. More money could mean more participation by more donors. It could purchase more information for voters. On the other hand, it could be the 1990s equivalent of the old southern poll tax, shutting most people out of the system altogether. Big money has big effects, even though they can be overstated.

Money affects the candidates. Either they do whatever it takes to raise a lot of cash, as Nancy Kaszak did, or they quit, as Paul Simon did. Or--long shots still do come in-- they build their own grassroots organization (Paul Wellstone in Minnesota), or they benefit from having two well-funded primary opponents knock each other off (Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois).

But the candidate question cuts both ways. Contribution limits imposed by reformers at the federal level have given us eccentric millionaire candidates. Ross Perot and Steve Forbes and Michael Huffington can give only $1,000 apiece to a federal candidate who reflects their views, but they can give unlimited amounts to themselves. Perot and company may irritate serious politicians and policy wonks, but the lasting harm of contribution limits is invisible--the absence of more credible challengers to the status quo. Had current federal election laws been in effect in 1968 Eugene McCarthy couldn't have raised desperately needed seed money in six-figure amounts from half a dozen wealthy mavericks so that he could run against a sitting president. He would have either had to spend precious campaign time making thousands of phone calls or muddle along in obscurity. In either case, the political challenge to the Vietnam war would have been far less effective.

Money affects the public, making it cynical. This is true with some qualifications. Reformers point out that the vast majority of Americans never give to campaigns and that most campaign money comes from the wealthiest. However, at least 5 percent of American adults do contribute in presidential years--a far larger proportion than in any other democracy.

Disillusionment with government has indeed been rising for more than 20 years, according to the respected General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The GSS found that in 1994 75 percent of Americans thought officials were not interested in the "average man"--up from 59 percent in 1973. Over the same period, the number of people who said they have "hardly any" confidence in Congress more than doubled--from 16 percent in 1973 to 36 percent in 1994.

"My fear is that people will begin to feel despair," says Michael McConnell, regional director of the American Friends Service Committee and a campaign-finance-reform activist. "In the economic sphere, there are very few handles for people to change things. The ideological sphere is controlled by big media conglomerates. The political sphere seems like the last, best hope for people to have an impact. If we lose the political sphere, then we're in real trouble."

Money magnifies the gap between the "financially articulate" (Paul Simon's phrase) and the rest of us. "An interest group has to pay--and keep paying--to play in the [Illinois legislative] game," writes James Nowlan, a downstater who may be the only professional political scientist to have served in the Illinois General Assembly and run for statewide office, on his Web site. "If you don't have a big PAC (contributor committee) in play, then you have to pay huge bucks to a door opener, that is, a lobbyist pal of one of the leaders who can maybe get your issue onto the agenda. Without a door opener, your issue is dead in the water.

"Years ago, a citizen or a small interest group without any campaign money could always find a sponsor for its policy agenda, get a legitimate hearing, and then an up-or-down vote from a legislative committee. No more. Little guys have been squeezed out by the big money game."

The logic is that of an arms race: "The more others give, the more you have to give to stay even," says good-government lobbyist David Starrett. "To be special you have to give more. The price of protection keeps going up." And the gap grows between cash-poor lobbies like Common Cause or Voices for Illinois Children and cash-rich ones like Commonwealth Edison and the Illinois State Medical Society.

Money reduces the gap between the articulate and the rest of us. Capital University law professor Bradley Smith, who spoke at Chicago-Kent College of Law in February, sees money as an equalizer for those who don't speak well, aren't celebrities, and lack the time to become activists. For instance, he says, what about your former high school classmate who's become a successful body-shop owner? His best chance of political expression is to give money to his favorite candidate. To the extent that reformers limit what he can give, they probably hamper his involvement more than they do General Electric's.

Money jacks up the cost of government contracts. In a backward, expensive, and often corrupting way, elections are already partly publicly financed, argues Cook County clerk David Orr. He makes the point with a story he believes to be typical: when his office found a way to put what had long been a no-bid contract out for competitive bids, the same company got the business as before--but charged Orr's office $750,000 less. "That's for one contract for one year! The vast majority of campaign money I'm aware of comes from vendors who do business with the government. We can't open their books. But we think many vendors up their prices because they feel they will need to make campaign contributions to stay in the game. My 18-year experience in government tells me that hundreds of millions of dollars are lost this way."

Orr is lucky he doesn't work in Springfield, where this problem may be worse than in Cook County. The indefatigable authors of the book Illinois for Sale: Do Campaign Contributions Buy Influence?--Doug Finke, Jay Fitzgerald, Kevin McDermott, and Bernard Schoenburg--report that in 1992 the General Assembly widened the state's no-bid loophole, raising the dollar amount at which most state contracts had to be competitively bid from $5,000 to $25,000. (This book, like seemingly almost everything else you read and hear about campaign finance reform, was supported by the Joyce Foundation, which is putting $2 million a year into research and advocacy on the subject.)

Money contributes to feuding. "Nobody forms a PAC for the flaming moderates," laments Nancy Kaszak. "You don't get money for saying, 'I see both sides.' In effect, you have funded teams with no incentive to reach a conclusion. If the lawyers and the doctors [both major givers] ever came to agreement on tort reform, Springfield would shut down."

Money affects legislation. This is the big one--easy to overstate and hard to prove. For instance, Citizen Action has accused Commonwealth Edison and Illinois Power of strategically distributing $11,683 in gifts and campaign contributions during 1996 to members of the Joint Committee on Electric Utility Regulatory Reform (the companies gave more than $200,000 to General Assembly members). The joint committee was considering how to deregulate Edison and other utilities. Edison representatives were at first involved in the committee's deliberations, then skipped the hearings in July and August while they huddled with manufacturers to put together their own proposal, which was introduced in the postelection legislative session. But the bill went nowhere. State senate president James "Pate" Philip, a major recipient of Edison's largesse, wouldn't call the bill for a vote, declining to risk his narrow Republican majority on it.

Confusing? You bet. It's not easy to trace the influence of money or its lack, even if you're sure that Citizen Action is always right and Edison always wrong. It becomes even harder when big-money players take opposite sides, as they do, for instance, on tort reform and gambling expansion. Yes, "gambling interests" gave state legislators an astronomical $2.5 million in 1995-'96, as documented by Richard Means's Public Access Project--but some favored expansion of legalized gambling and some opposed it. "It's inaccurate to say that this is a unified and monolithic effort," says Means, "but these contributions are so far in excess of their place in society you have to look askance." Even if the gambling moguls are canceling each other out they're still diverting legislators' time and attention from more significant matters. (The huge influx of gambling money suggests that the state should either ban all political contributions from state-granted monopolies or ban gambling itself--or deregulate the industry altogether. If there's no government influence to sell, who will buy?)

Some reformers blame the recent failure of Governor Jim Edgar's school funding package on the influence of big money too. "You almost got the feeling it didn't matter how much we organized," says Al Sharp, director of Protestants for the Common Good. But veteran statehouse observer Charles Wheeler III, writing in Illinois Issues magazine, sees the defeat as part of a Republican plan to pander to voters in 1998 with ads saying, "We stood against the largest tax increase in state history." If Wheeler is right, the school issue demonstrates the power of the voters (be they wise or foolish), not the power of money.

On high-profile issues, money doesn't usually buy votes--it follows them. "PAC contributions select politicians who share the same ideology," write the University of Chicago's John Lott Jr. and the University of Texas's Stephen Bronars in a study released in March. If the money were buying votes, then the votes would change when the money stopped. Instead, "Representatives continue to vote in the same way even when they announce their retirement and PAC contributions plummet."

"I'm just in my first term," says state senator Barack Obama of Hyde Park, generally a reform supporter, "but my impression is that for all the talk about money, politicians still care a lot more about voters than about contributors. They are much more apt to vote against a contributor than against vocal constituents." Loyola University political scientist Alan Gitelson agrees: "The most important determinant of legislative votes is constituent attitudes and beliefs. Principles also play a role." But if neither applies, then money does have an impact.

In other words, on obscure legislative details the public doesn't understand (quick--what rate of return do you favor on stranded assets?) and on bills that aren't matters of personal principle, the access campaign contributions buy can make a difference. Over the long haul, if moneyed interests can win enough footnotes they can afford to lose a few headlines.

In most of society money is no problem. Few of us find it repugnant to buy and sell houses, land, copiers, or grapefruit. We understand that all dollars are created equal, and not everyone has the same number of them. But when it comes to politics we take a different view. Here we believe in one person, one vote--so much so that we lock up people who buy and sell votes. And we're uneasy when there's so much money sloshing around. What to do?

First of all, require disclosure. Make all candidates and political committees tell promptly who gave them how much, where the contributors live, where they work, and what interests they or their families have in contracts the candidate would control if elected--and present it all so clearly that reporters and voters can find and understand it before election day.

Nobody's against this in principle. But in practice campaign finance reformers have had to work hard to write disclosure into law (and they're not all the way there yet) and even harder to get election agencies money to oversee and enforce the laws. One activist had to reconfigure the Federal Election Commission's information on his own Web site (www.tray.com/fecinfo) to make it easier to understand and use. This spring in Illinois, after considerable labor and intrigue, reformers got the Democratic house and Republican senate to agree on House Bill 729, which improves disclosure at the state level. But the $500,000 necessary to enable the State Board of Elections to implement the law still hasn't been appropriated.

Other states have passed nice-sounding laws and then neglected to pay to make them work. According to political scientists Thomas Gais and Michael Malbin, the average state election agency actually had a bit less to spend on administering state election laws in 1995 than it had in 1979. During that time most states imposed complex regulations on an ever-increasing number of organized interest groups--but states with contribution limits or public financing appropriated no more money than states requiring only disclosure. So did they really mean it?

Given full and prompt disclosure--which we don't have yet--the question becomes, what to do next? The mainstream of the Illinois campaign-finance-reform movement would limit contributions to campaigns, as Congress did for federal elections in 1974 and as more than 30 states have done since. The intent is to lessen the influence of any one donor--but the effect is to force candidates to raise money constantly and in ways (such as direct mail) that are costly. To reach a reasonable compromise, former Democratic National Committee head David Wilhelm and political consultant Kitty Kurth favor limits on contributions, though at a higher level than federal law now allows. (After all, inflation has eaten the limit of $1,000 set in 1974 down to about $325 in equivalent purchasing power.) Their view hasn't found much favor in the reform movement, where the usual reflex is simply to lower the limits.

In 1974 Congress also tried to limit total campaign spending--something that might have saved Nancy Kaszak several thousand dial tones--but the U.S. Supreme Court overruled its effort two years later in Buckley v. Valeo. The court held that money is the fuel of free speech in political campaigns and therefore can't be restricted under the First Amendment. Of course capping campaign contributions also limits the monetary speech individuals and PACs can make, but here the court figured the government had an overriding need to prevent corruption. So contribution limits were constitutional; mandatory overall spending limits were not.

The Buckley decision does allow voluntary spending limits, which candidates are enticed into by the prospect of public help. Accordingly, a key provision of the McCain-Feingold bill would give reduced-rate TV time and mailings to House candidates who agree to spend no more than $600,000.

Ultimately many--perhaps most--campaign finance reformers would like to do more than set limits. "All private campaign contributions, unless they were to come in roughly equal amounts from all citizens, must be considered corrupting," says campaign-reform guru Ellen Miller. On that basis many of these reformers would like to outlaw private contributions altogether and support all campaigns with public money. (This is a natural extension of our generically Progressive voting culture. In the 19th century you voted by handing in a preprinted ballot for your chosen party. The idea of blank ballots printed at public expense, to be marked by voters in private, was a major change.) Public financing is the long-term goal of reform groups such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, even though they support intermediate measures.

But Loyola political scientist Alan Gitelson sees two problems with comprehensive public financing. One is that it prevents people from giving to their favored candidate (and forces them to contribute to ones they abhor)--possibly a violation of the First Amendment. The other may be worse: Who gets the money? Do challengers and incumbents get the same amount? Do fringe candidates qualify? Under the voluntary presidential funding checkoff, Lyndon LaRouche got $40 million while he was in jail. To avoid such a PR disaster do you freeze out the likes of John Anderson and Ross Perot?

But seriously now, folks, you can't contain "campaign spending"--because you can't tell where it leaves off and normal life begins. Obviously it includes all spending authorized by and coordinated with the candidate (even surreptitiously). But what about genuinely independent expenditures that name names right before election time? Are they free speech protected by the First Amendment or a dastardly end run around campaign spending limits? (In Wisconsin last year a group of manufacturers ran ads critical of certain Democratic state senators late in the campaign, without using the words "vote" or "elect." The question of whether those ads were legitimate issue advocacy or illegitimate electoral advocacy is now before the courts.) What if they don't name names? Should the government control what the National Rifle Association or the National Abortion Rights Action League can spend advocating their issues? What if they had done their advocating during the recent Durbin-Salvi Senate contest? Everyone would have known who the target was--no need to name him. Yet surely a First Amendment stretchy enough to protect Nazi marchers in Skokie and near-naked dancers in South Bend protects public advocacy on public issues.

In attempting to legislate equality through spending limits, reformers are in danger of turning the First Amendment inside out. As Capital University's Bradley Smith puts it, "The First Amendment was based on the belief that political speech is too important to be regulated by government. Campaign finance laws operate on the directly contrary assumption that campaigns are so important that speech must be regulated."

This is not a technical detail--it's central. In a capitalist society wealth is generated, increased, and distributed unequally. In politics reformers want to lessen those inequalities. It's entirely reasonable to do so. But it's also reasonable to expect the powers outside to want a say inside.

Still, the American Friends Service Committee's Michael McConnell believes the effort to lessen inequalities through campaign reform is worth making. Even if complete success is impossible, "I think we could improve the quality of our representatives. You can name a few people who've been in public office who have had integrity and honesty--the Paul Simons, the Paul Wellstones, Mark Hatfields, Abner Mikvas. I think [under campaign finance reform] we could get more of them."

Perhaps this is as good a point as any to point out the obvious. Campaign finance reform is often said to be a matter of promoting ethics or preventing corruption, a nonpartisan and nonideological exercise. But in practice, as currently pitched, campaign finance reform is a liberal "cause."

When more than 400 people packed Old Saint Patrick's basement for a "town hall forum" on the subject on June 23, U.S. Senator John McCain might well have been the only conservative present. When he made a passing reference to his friend and cosponsor Russ Feingold as a "liberal Democrat," the audience interrupted him with sustained applause.

The statement "Campaign finance reform is a gateway issue--until we address this issue we can't resolve any of the others" is a movement commonplace. It's no more ideologically neutral than the crowd at Saint Pat's. First, the "other issues" turn out to be liberal standbys such as more funding for public schools, health care, and social services--not medical savings accounts or school choice. And these "other issues" are actually often considered more important than reform; when a candidate backs campaign finance reform but takes conservative stances elsewhere, reformers have been known to bundle their supposed "keystone issue" into the backseat. Glenn Poshard, a downstate U.S. representative now running for the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, has renounced PAC contributions and endorsed the strongly reformist findings of the Illinois Campaign Finance Task Force, aka the Simon-Stratton commission (released January 29 under the title "Tainted Democracy"). But at the Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century's May forum, campaign-finance-reform advocate Cindy Canary described Poshard as "progun and antichoice" and implied that those issues should weigh more heavily than campaign finance reform when Democratic primary voters choose next March.

Some reformers are more straightforward. Former U.S. representative Dan Hamburg, a Democrat from California, doesn't think campaign finance reform is about ethics so much as basic political philosophy. "The real government of our country is economic, dominated by large corporations that charter the state to do their bidding," he wrote in the May 5 Nation. "Fostering a secure environment in which corporations and their investors can flourish is the paramount objective of both parties. Campaign finance works to place and keep in office those who willingly reproduce this culture." But who's going to run on that kind of explicitly anticapitalist platform?

"We want the battle of ideas, not the battle of bucks," Senator McCain told the gathering at Old Saint Patrick's on June 23. One Illinois reform stalwart puts the same thought another way: "If we could only pass issues on the merits, not the politics, we'd get so much more done."

That is Progressive ideology at its purest--and most naive. It's a hope that can be realized only in Plato's republic, which was to be governed by philosopher-kings, not by the people.

But in a democracy the weapons of politics are many; money and ideas (the "merits") are only two. There are also candidates, activists, volunteers, phone banks, computer skills, celebrities, expertise in election law, charisma, patronage, organization, contracts, contacts...the list goes on. The more weapons the better, because each one gives a different group of people a way to get into the process. If any one weapon or group gets too much of an edge, it's a problem. (Not that it's easy to say exactly what is too much. Campaign finance reformers believe moneyed interests have too much clout, but as Pete du Pont points out, under current federal campaign law, "A Robin Williams or Whoopi Goldberg can make appearances worth tens of thousands of dollars to candidates, but a businessperson can't give the same amount to his or her choice." Yet among the business crowd, the Tribune Company--as a media owner--can make unlimited valuable contributions to its favored candidates that Motorola, Caterpillar, and your neighborhood real estate agent can only dream of.)

Campaign finance reformers want to reduce the power of one weapon--money. If they succeed, they will increase the power of all the other weapons, including ideas--they won't abolish them. Even eliminating private money as a political weapon--if that were possible or desirable--wouldn't cause the "merits" to rule.

"Almost one-quarter of our children are in poverty," former senator Paul Simon told an Oak Park campaign reform audience on April 19. "That's way more than any other developed country. This is no act of God. It's flawed policy--policy that responds to those who contribute rather than to those who need."

But no campaign finance reform can guarantee that Congress--much less the Illinois General Assembly--will agree to spend more money on poor children. It can't guarantee that the excellent arguments for doing so will be heeded. It will simply--but very importantly--give advocates a better chance to succeed, by tilting the table toward the political resources they do have, such as organization and activists, and away from the resources they don't have, such as raw cash.

"Democracy is a messy business," Bradley Smith said at his Chicago-Kent appearance in February. "It is not clean. It is not composed of a bunch of experts who sit around in Congress and think about what's best for everybody. Never has been, never will be. Democracy promises us some degree of accountability through equal voting rights and First Amendment protections." If reformers expect more than this--if they imagine that they can banish private money from politics altogether, or that by banishing it they can bring about perfect equality or a second New Deal--then no matter how many battles they win, they will continue to be disappointed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations by Slug Signorino.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Harold Henderson

  • The Recyclable House

    The Recyclable House

    If Ken Ortiz has his way, no one in Chicago will ever simply "demolish" a building again.
    • Jul 24, 2008
  • Sympathy for the Devil?

    Sympathy for the Devil?

    Progressive scribe Rick Perlstein made his reputation finding the good in conservatives. Then they really started screwing up the country.
    • Jan 24, 2008
  • Dynamic Flash for Democrats

    Dynamic Flash for Democrats

    Wanna raise funds to run for office? Nag Schwarzenegger about health care? Or just make fun of Bush? Call Articulated Man.
    • Jan 10, 2008
  • More »

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories