THE INFLUENCE of private money on congressional politics has not diminished, but increased dramatically in recent years. According to Common Cause, various interest groups spent $8.5 million on the 1972 congressional races, but will spend an estimated $30 million this year.
The campaign financing subsidies pushed some private money out of the presidential races, but the cash merely shifted to the House and Senate campaigns. If the government closes off easy access to congressional campaign funds by providing federal subsidies to House and Senate candidates, that might reverse the trend.Or it might merely push the political money into other channel of expression.
Reformers of various stripes have been trying to separate private economic clout from politics for 70 years, so perhaps it is time to ask whether the goal is realistic. Political power follows economic power; Daniel Webster told us that. So long as private wealth in this society is distributed so unevenly, the distribution of political influence will be similarly warped.
The reformers, since they are not trying to do anything aobut the maldistribution of private wealth, keep attempting to insulate congressmen from its influence. This only adds economic insult to the declining social status of our elected representatives. Disclosure rules are valuable, but now the reform spirit has added a more crippling element to congressional self-esteem: a flat limit on earned income.
Henceforth, a member of Congress will be restricted to his congressional salary of $57,000 plus 15 percent in outside income. That sounds like a lot of money to most Americans - about $65,000 - but it pegs the congressional office rather low on the scale, when compared to all the other important people who run America. A senator, after all, is entitled to feel equal to his pees and his peers make hundreds of thousands.
To deepend the insult, the scambling politician, who sought social status and, yes, upward mobility through politics, will find himself in Congress sitting next to millionaires with private fortunes, who collect dividends on stock and bonds without any limit.
This may be where Congress is headed, an era in which representation is dominated by two types of senators and representatives - millionaires who bankroll their own campaigns and media "hot dogs" who know how to get TV time, whose onl legislative program is a spread in People magazine. Both types have proliferated in recent years, campaigning on "Mr. Clean" images rathern than on substantive advocacy of genuine interests. About one-fourth of the 100 U.S. senators today are millionaires. They are presumed to be above corruption, but they are also far above the average perspective of the citizens they represent.
The reform era didn't create millionaire senators or "hot dog" congressmen, but it has made success easier for both. Perhaps, eventually, the public sentiment will turn again and people will decide that a little dirt around Congress doesn't hurt as much as the kitchen cleanser did.