BURLINGTON,VT. -- Vermont always has struck me as the closest embodiment of idealized democracy one can find: a small, well-informed electorate in close touch with its officials. Every election campaign I've ever covered here has included dozens of face-to-face forums where politicians -- from governors and senators on down -- show up and answer questions until their constituents give them leave to depart.
The 1990 campaign still has all the earmarks of healthy democracy, but even in Vermont, the underlying attitude has turned corrosively negative. Voters interviewed at a shopping mall here gave voice to the national impulse to punish the people in power. Paul Martin of Richford spoke for many when he said, "What burns me the most is that these congressmen felt so sorry for themselves they voted themselves a big raise -- but they won't do their jobs."
Vermont voters are luckier than most, however, because they have a real contest on the ballot, an opportunity to choose who should represent them in Congress. While the Democrats have defaulted by giving their nomination to an unfunded college professor advocating legalization of drugs, freshman Rep. Peter Smith (R), Vermont's lone congressman, is getting a spirited challenge from an independent, Burlington's socialist former mayor Bernie Sanders. He has matched Smith dollar-for-dollar in fund-raising.
Most places, the public's impatience with the incumbents will have to be bottled up again, because the challengers simply haven't raised enough money to let the voters know alternatives exist. Early this month, Common Cause, the political-reform advocacy group, reported that only 23 of the 405 House members seeking reelection face opponents who had raised even half what the incumbents could spend.
As for the rest, 78 have no major party opposition, 218 others have opponents who raised less than $25,000 (as of Sept. 30) and another 86 have challengers with more than that but less than half what the incumbent has collected.
"Whatever public anger and anti-incumbent sentiment may exist among citizens around the country," Common Cause president Fred Wertheimer said, "House members are shielded by a wall of political money that makes them nearly invincible."
What is worse, a few days after this report was issued, the incumbents in Congress quietly moved to lock in the same advantage for 1992 by killing the last hope that campaign-finance laws might be rewritten this year.
While everyone's attention was focused on the budget battle, word was passed that it was too late to try to reconcile the separate and very different campaign-finance "reform" bills the House and Senate had passed in August.
What a surprise! This deal had been concocted months ago, as a cynical subterfuge that allowed Democrats to say they had voted to clean up the system, when the House and Senate passed "reform" measures on party-line votes, yet come away with all the advantages incumbents now enjoy.
It's not all the Democrats' fault, of course. President Bush submitted some obviously partisan proposals of his own early in the process, then stiffened the spines of already recalcitrant Senate Republicans against a promising bipartisan move to put "flexible ceilings" on runaway Senate campaign spending. His threat to veto any bill with spending limits was no help.
But the heart of the problem lies, not in the spendthrift Senate contests, but in the hundreds of virtually uncontested House races. And the blame for House inaction lies with the Democrats.
At the start of this Congress almost two years ago, Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) broke with his party's past obstinacy and signaled he was ready to work seriously for reform of campaign financing. He waited ... and waited ... and waited. In the end, his effort at bipartisanship was scorned, as Democrats passed their own bill. But that was not until Aug. 3 of this year. The House did not appoint conferees to meet with the Senate for another six weeks, and then -- guess what? -- it was too late in the session to forge an agreement.
The reason for the delay was essentially that House Speaker Tom Foley, only one year in the job, knew that he faced a full-scale rebellion in the House Democratic caucus if he really tried to work out a compromise that might become law.
Powerful committee chairmen and dozens of rank-and-file members, accustomed to enjoying huge financial advantages over their challengers, were telling him to bury reform. Their argument was that 1992 poses enough problems for them -- an unknown and possibly weak Democratic presidential candidate at the head of the ticket in a year when redistricting will make many of them run in unfamiliar territory. Whatever happens, they told the Speaker and his emissaries, you've got to let us have the money advantage once again.
By killing reform this year, they lock in the ability to raise their money from their friends in the political-action committees again in 1991 and 1992, before any new "reform" bill can take effect.
It's that kind of cynical, take-care-of-myself-and-the-hell-with-everyone-else attitude that is fueling public rebellion -- even in the decent, small-scale democracy of Vermont.