No Small Change

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Change. Change. Change. Change. Change.

How? How? How? How? How?

I'm glad you asked.

First, do some harm -- and I mean real harm. Break the system we now have, in which every two years most members of Congress have to raise millions of dollars to win reelection, in which senators must do the same every six years and presidential candidates every four. Institute the public funding of elections, an idea whose time has surely come. Theodore Roosevelt suggested it in 1907.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates, afflicted with a strange compulsion to chirp "change" every third word, support such a concept. Yet it is not and really never has been a billboard campaign issue. Instead, these candidates emphasize banishing lobbyists from this or that part of their realm: Barack Obama will accept no contributions from them, and John Edwards would ban them from his White House. But lobbyists are not the problem. The problem is the need for them.

The average winner of a congressional race in 2006 spent $1.3 million. The average Senate winner spent $9.6 million. Where do you think much of this money came from? Lobbyists. What do you think members of Congress must start doing the day after their election? Raising money. This is why Congress is often in session only three days a week and why holidays have been stretched into virtual recesses. Fundraising, fundraising, fundraising.

A lobbyist I know tells me that at the height of the fundraising season, he gets invited to 50 or 60 events per week. Sometimes, when he goes up to Capitol Hill, he might look across a room and accidentally make eye contact with a congressman or a senator. Soon an e-mail will arrive: A little money, please. It's worse than a singles bar.

The only way to eliminate the disproportionate influence of lobbyists is to break Congress's nymphomaniacal lust for campaign funds. Otherwise, we will forever be getting remedies that sound good in a presidential debate but that don't really matter all that much (and that in any event affect only one branch of government, the presidency). Edwards won't take money from lobbyists, but he will take it from negligence lawyers; Obama is similarly chaste, but his hand is out to consultants and others who, while not registered as lobbyists, nevertheless represent special interests.

I don't blame any of the candidates. Even special interests have a right to be heard. But not a greater right than you or I. If elections were publicly funded, members of Congress would not be reliant on special interests for money to campaign. As in all things, there would be a downside. Certain groups would lose some clout -- including, unfortunately, organizations with unpopular but progressive agendas. In general, though, the disproportionate role of money would be curbed.

There is another way to do this -- compulsory voting. This eliminates the huge costs of get-out-the-vote efforts and, especially, of targeting particular interest groups. In Australia, such a system produces turnouts of 90 percent or so. But telling someone he has to vote is going to seem to many like telling him how to vote. I can't see America adopting such a system.

Of all the candidates who talk about cleaning up Washington, Obama has the best track record. "We have to break the stranglehold that the lobbyists and special interests have on our democracy," he has said. But his plan -- "a plan to make the White House the people's house" -- will not break the reliance of Congress on campaign funds. Maybe Obama intends, once in office, to exercise the sort of leadership that Teddy Roosevelt did a century ago, when he called on Congress to adopt public financing. Obama embodies that promise.

Hillary Clinton, too, favors public financing, and she mentioned it in a recent presidential debate. But whatever her intentions, her message is muddled by an obvious association with squalid presidential pardons and Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers during her husband's time in office. This may be an unfair way to judge her, but there is really no alternative. She has been part of the system for far too long to realistically pose as its reformer. She has, if I may paraphrase words from Stephen Sondheim's "Send In the Clowns," lost her timing so late in her career. ("Isn't it rich?")

Still, Clinton has a point. Change will not come from rhetoric, and it will not come by presidential fiat -- banning lobbyists or branding them with an "L." It will come by blowing up a system that is already broken. Congress's only efficiency is as a vacuum for money. Somebody, please, pull the plug.

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