By Ernest F. Hollings
Sunday, February 19, 2006
There is a cancer on the body politic: money.
It started with Maurice Stans in the 1968 presidential race, when Stans was collecting money for his candidate, Richard Nixon. Stans's approach was direct. He told the textile industry that its "fair share" was $350,000, and 10 textile executives then raised $35,000 apiece. Millions were raised, mostly cash, which couldn't be traced. The cry went out: "The government is up for sale." And Congress reacted in 1974 with legislation outlawing cash donations in federal elections and limiting candidates to so much money per registered voter. In South Carolina, Strom Thurmond and I were limited in a Senate race to spending $637,000 each.
Fast-forward 30 years, taking into account inflation and the larger number of voters. Today a South Carolina race for the U.S. Senate would be limited to $3 million -- if the spending limits were still in effect. But the limits did not survive a court challenge; they were thrown out in a 1976 Supreme Court decision that has had disastrous consequences. So in 1998 I had to raise $8.5 million to be elected senator. This meant I had to collect $30,000 a week, each and every week, for six years. I could have raised $3 million in South Carolina. But to get $8.5 million I had to travel to New York, Boston, Chicago, Florida, California, Texas and elsewhere. During every break Congress took, I had to be out hustling money. And when I was in Washington, or back home, my mind was still on money.
When I came to the Senate in 1966, we invariably would have a vote scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday to be sure that we started the week at work. And the Senate regularly was voting Friday afternoon. Now you can't find the Senate until Monday evening, and it's gone again by Thursday night. We're off raising money. We use every excuse for a "break" to do so. In February it used to be one day for Washington's birthday and one for Lincoln's. Now we've combined them so we can take a week off to raise money. There's Easter week, Memorial Day week, Fourth of July week and the whole month of August. There's Columbus Day week, Thanksgiving week and the year-end holidays. While in town, we hold breakfast fundraisers, lunch fundraisers, and caucuses to raise funds. The late senator Richard Russell of Georgia said a senator was given a six-year term -- two years to be a statesman, two to be a politician and two to demagogue. Now we take all six years to raise money.
There is no time to rest or take it easy. Chairmen and ranking minority-party members of committees are charged with raising $100,000 for their party campaign committees. Regular members must raise $50,000, and senators are expected to attend each other's fundraisers, as well as party fundraisers outside Washington. Political parties now raise money for senators, exacerbating the politics and the standoff in the Senate. You don't feel like talking to a senator when he was at a fundraiser against you the previous evening.
In 2004, my last year in the Senate, we had Thursday policy lunches at which experts on both sides of a hot topic would make short presentations and we would hammer out policy. But from the beginning of the summer of that year until that fall's elections, policy lunches were canceled so that senators could go to their parties' headquarters and call all over the country, begging for money.
The result of this nonsense is that almost one-third of a senator's time is spent fundraising. The Senate schedule calls for morning-long committee hearings (which many times extend into the afternoon). In the afternoon, there is debate on the floor and votes. Little time is left for talking to the staff or to constituents, answering mail, phone calls, etc. Every evening there is an average of three receptions or fundraisers, followed by three breakfasts or fundraisers the next morning. A senator has so many committee assignments that there is no way to attend all the functions he or she should. He's constantly asking the staff or a colleague, "What happened?"
The Supreme Court ruling that left us with this mess was Buckley v. Valeo. The court held in that decision 30 years ago that the limit on campaign spending constituted a limit on free speech and was thus unconstitutional. On the other hand, limiting the speech of a contributor was deemed constitutional. In this decision, the court frustrated the intent of Congress. We wanted to limit both.
From the beginning, candidates have had to raise money, qualify and run. It was the candidate's character and policy that attracted contributions -- the more contributions the merrier. But people resented the rich buying elections, either as candidates or contributors. What the court did in 1976 was to give the rich, who don't have to raise money, a big advantage -- in effect, a greater degree of freedom of speech than others have. No one can imagine that in drafting the First Amendment to the Constitution, James Madison thought freedom of speech would be measured by wealth. The Supreme Court, which has found constitutional other limits on speech, has rendered Madison's freedom unequal. Congress must make it equal again.
In efforts to correct the distortions caused by Buckley v. Valeo , Congress and the court have for years engaged in various contortions, without much success. What is needed is a simple one-line amendment to the Constitution. It would authorize Congress to regulate or control spending in federal elections.
Since five of the last six amendments to the Constitution deal with elections, this shouldn't be all that difficult to achieve. I introduced such an amendment with bipartisan support 20 years ago and got a majority vote but not the two-thirds vote needed for a joint resolution. There's no question as to its favor with the people: The states have demanded that we apply it to their elections as well.
With a limit on election spending, senators could do their jobs again. They could go back to working for the country instead of for their campaigns.
Recently the cancer of money has metastasized. The Jack Abramoff scandal has revealed the poisoning of our democracy. The K Street lobbyists have become a cottage industry. A legislator who seeks money will do well to take onto his or her staff someone a lobbyist recommends. The staffer then arranges the industry fundraisers. And K Street tells you outright that if you don't have a Republican lobbyist, your legislation is not going anywhere.
The lobbyists don't bother with the senator; they take the staff to lunch. Legislation is not drafted in the Senate but in the law offices. Staffs are queried to make sure the senator is favorably disposed and once there are enough senators so inclined, the measure moves to the party leadership's staff. The next thing you know, the measure is a party position and becomes "must" legislation. Sometimes a senator is
on the way to the floor to vote on it, asking his staff, "What's this all about?" and the staff replies, "You're for this, vote 'aye,' or you're against this, vote 'nay.' "
The money crowd has the money, and representatives and senators need the money. But no one wants to touch the reason for the ethical misconduct. Excise the cancer of money, and most of the misconduct will disappear.
The writer is a former Democratic senator from South Carolina.