Three of the most distinguished names on the 95th Congress's list of retirees have given us their recommendations as to how Congress can be made a more responsible body. Reps. John Moss (D-Calif.) and Lloyd Meeds (D-Wash.) and Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) have joined in recommending public financing of congressional campaigns.
These are disinterested men. They speak from the combined experience of nearly 50 years. They tell us that, under our present system of campaign financing, campaign contributions from special-interest lobbies control public policy. Yet a bill to establish public financing lost again this year (although by a narrow margin) on the House floor. Why?
The conventional wisdom says that senators and representatives will not vote to finance their challengers. Eighty percent of incumbents win reelection under the present system. So why change?
But behind this understandable, if self-serving, logic lies a fuller explanation. It was summed up most cogently and most recently in an analysis prepared by the public-interest lobby Common Cause.
Common Cause did a breakdown of the vote in the House Commerce Committee on Jimmy Carter's hospital cost-control legislation and correlated that vote with the amounts of money donated to members of the Commerce Committee by the hospital lobby, including the Ameican Medical Association. The correlation turned out as might be suspected - that is, those members of the committee who voted against controlling hospital costs received the most money from the hospital lobby.
Of the 22 members who voted against the bill, 19 had received campaign contributions from the hospital lobby. But since the American Medical Association makes a practice of contributing to the campaigns of most congressmen, those who voted in favor of the bill had also received contributions. In fact, 16 of the 21 members of the committee who voted on President Carter's side of the argument had received such money. However, the difference in they amounts was striking. Those who voted against imposing controls on hospital costs received an average of $4,400 from the lobby. Those who voted in favor of imposing controls had received an average of only $1,000.
So it is fairly clear. What we are really perpetuating by clinging to our present system of financing congressional campaigns is the purchase of congressional votes.
Not blatantly, of course. Not in the way that the railroads purchased votes in the 19th century. But is it possible for a man who is about to vote on an issue affecting hospitals to put entirely out of mind the fact that the hospital lobby gave him $5,000 the last time he ran for election? Is he not likely to be influenced by that fact at least as much if not more than he is influenced by the arguments on the merits?
And as Common Cause points out, we are dealing here with the tip of the ice-berg. The vote on hospital-cost containment and the contributions from the hospital lobby were easy to compare. It is almost impossible to make similar comparisons on equally important congressional votes because only the legislator knows what contributors of large amounts have demanded or expect in return.
We are still a long way from a truly representative government. We are still tempting our legislators to make decisions about the public good on the basis of their own private gain. We will not be "of the people and by the people" until we enact public financing of election campaigns.