Money Matters | Letters | Chicago Reader

Money Matters 

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To the Editor:

Harold Henderson's article on money and politics in the July 25 issue of the Reader ["Filthy Lucre"] was an exhaustive and well-written look at the pros and cons of different campaign finance reform proposals. I can't resist, however, pointing out that his list of sources was somewhat scattered. Does money affect legislation? Well, perhaps that question can't be conclusively answered, but John Lott's study is hardly the last word on the subject. It is, to put it mildly, a curious study. Why would we expect retiring members of Congress, many of whom have been in there for decades, to have a sudden crisis of conscience and, in their final few months in Congress, turn their backs on the folks who've bankrolled their stay there?

There's a lot more to legislation than voting. The closest thing to a majority view in political science is that we can't measure the effect of PAC dollars on members because their effect mostly occurs behind the scenes. The tobacco lobby, for instance, has been known to contribute to members who reliably vote against tobacco legislation on the floor. These same members, however, serve on committees that spend hours behind closed doors writing legislation; you can bet that these folks aren't actively writing legislation to crack down on subsidies for tobacco growers. PACs and other political contributors know that members must cast their votes in ways that will please the average voter, but the compromises reached in committee hearings are seldom known to anyone but the members themselves and the lobbyists who give them advice on writing bills. Money in this case is a means of buying acquiescence, of buying access.

This assertion can't be proven, a fact that benefits scholars such as Lott who are eager to downplay the effects of money on the political process. One indication, however, that there is more going on than meets the eye is the tremendous disparity between those on the inside and those on the outside. According to the year-end FEC reports for 1996, the average incumbent in the past election raised nearly seven times as much as the average challenger--$600,000 for incumbents, $87,000 for challengers. Interest-group money, however, is much, much further skewed toward members. Incumbents raised 26 times as much money as did challengers from PACs--an average of $264,000 against $10,000. Subtract a handful of openly ideological PACs--labor unions are the main example--and the disparity grows even further. Henderson acknowledges that the access of monied interests makes a greater difference on issues the public doesn't understand, but even on the high-salience issues, those on which voters are informed, who is it that's informing them? More often than not, it is the groups that have helped to frame the legislative choices in the first place.

None of this provides any way out of the dilemma that Henderson ably discusses. Banning PACs or interest groups probably isn't the answer. Just because we can't run a simple analysis of Congressional voting patterns and find proof of the influence of monied interests doesn't mean that influence doesn't exist. I'm pretty sympathetic to most of Henderson's arguments; I just wish he had done his research more thoroughly.

Rob Boatright

Hyde Park

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