The election just over can be wrapped up and marked "bought and paid for." While the exact amount spent by candidates for the Senate and the House may never be known, it was a scandalous splurge, with millions upon millions spent for television and the skills of the professionals who sell their services to the highest bidder.
If anything can shame the Congress into putting restraints on this orgy of political money, it should be this election. Spending on presidential campaigns is now limited by law, and the hurricane of money in the Nixon campaign of 1972 had a lot to do with it. So perhaps the 96th Congress will be impelled to follow that example.
Hard as it seems to single out a champion, that honor probably goes to Sen. Jesse Helms, the first Republican senator from North Carolina in this century. A late estimate putsthe money raised for his campaign at $6.7 million, equivalent to about $3 a voter. He outspent his Democratic opponent, John Ingram, by 32 to 1. Ingram never missed a chance to call him the "Six Million Dollar Man."
This may be an all-time record. It doubles the mark of $3 million set by Sen. H. John Heinz III, Republican of the ketchup and pickle family, in winning a seat from Pennsylvania.
The irony is that Helms, as an ultraconservative, has constantly railed against big spending in government. The Helms campaign is a stricking illustration of how politics has become profitable big business. Helms retained the highly successful direct-mail campaign firm of Richard Viguerie of Falls Church.
Of the $6.7 million total, nearly half is said to have gone to Viguerie and his subsidiary firms. Thanks to the nationwide direct-mail approach, contributions came from 100,000 donors outside North Carolina. They were stirred by the appeal of Helms's hard-line conservatism and his red-hot patriotism.
The political professional, a kind of "this gun for hire," is increasingly a factor as television takes over campaigning. The professionals are, for the most part, without political convictions and ready to work where the pay is highest. Their numbers have multiplied with the big-spending increase in congressional campaigns.
This was dramatically illustrated in the third-term campaign of Sen. Charles H. Percy of Illinois. A moderate Republican, Percy has been rated a conscientious senator with a broad grasp of foreign policy. Percy's Democratic opponent was Alex R. Seith, who won easily in the primary when Phyllis Schlafly, a hard-line conservative, decided that she lacked funds for a statewide contest.
Seith, a lecturer on foreign affairs with little practical experience in politics, was considered unlikely early in the campaign to provide Percy with formidable opposition. But the professionals he hired went to work. In TV ads throughout the state they sought to fasten the big-spender label on the senator, along with other dubious insinuations. As these took over with constant repetition, Percy dropped precipitously in the polls.
The political action committees formed by corporations, labor unions and others were an important source of money in the campaign. In a lengthy analysis, The Wall Street Journal pointed out that while contributions from the corporate party commmittees were supposed to go to Republican candidates, most of them went to Democrats. The article quoted Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, head of the Republican House Campaign Committee, as saying:
"The irony here is that although the public perceives us as carrying business's water, much of big business is really supporting our enemy. Many of these groups care much more about buying access to incumbents than any philosophical principles."
This suggests how difficult it is to dislodge a sitting member of Congress. The perquisites they enjoy give them a great advantage. One estimate puts the perks at $250,000 a year. They include staffs of 20 to 25 in Washington and back in the district, radio and television privileges, stationery and other supplies, free mailing, long-distance calls and free transportation. The latest addition is a motorized van employed in the district to tour shopping malls, with staffers on board to pass out literature and handle inquiries.
The imperial presidency about which so much has been written is being overtaken by the imperial Congress. The spending binge of 1978 is surely reason enough to put a limit in law on what can be spent in congressional elections.