A Response to Newt's "Campaign Reform"

There I was, home late at night on November 2nd, watching a rebroadcast of Newt Gingrich' testimony before the House Oversight Committee on C-Span. The subject was campaign reform. This was the Speaker's initial response to the famous June handshake agreement with President Clinton in New Hampshire to explore changing how political campaigns are financed. Not quite asleep, I heard him utter these words: "One of the greatest myths in modern politics is that campaigns are too expensive. The political process, in fact, is not overfunded, but underfunded." Like a shot of caffeine, this was enough to wake me up. The Speaker was saying that what was needed to respond to the public's antipathy towards politicians and the political process was ... more money. The pit forming in my stomach was not helped by the sight of the Democrats on the committee, including Sacramento's Vic Fazio, nodding in agreement. No one on the committee had the good sense to respond to the speaker with at least a "Did-I-hear-you-say....?" Had I been a member of the Committee, I would like to think that I would have reacted as follows: "Mr. Speaker, if I heard you right, you said that the supply of private money going into political campaigns should be increased, not decreased... The facts are these: In 1976, the combined total spending for House and Senate seats was $99 million. By 1994, that figure had risen to over $615 million. In 1976, incumbents outspent challengers by an average of 1.6 to 1. By 1994, the ratio had risen to 2.6 to 1. Twenty years ago, political action committees were but a speck on the political landscape. Now, there are almost 4,000 special interest PACs hanging out their shingle in the nation's capitol. During last year's election cycle, House incumbents raised over 45% of their total campaign contributions from these PACs. So the problem is not the amount of money in the political process. The real problem is where that money comes from. So long as most Americans believe that special interests mostly get their way here around here, nothing much will change. You compared what companies spend on product advertising to the conduct of our political campaigns, noting that the selling of soap on television far exceeds what we spend on elections. That may be so, but the comparison is absurd. The infusion of private money into our political system has been a calamity, by and large. In fact, the free enterprise system may be perfect for selling toothpaste, antacids, or Windows '95, for that matter. But our economic system -- capitalism -- should play a very small role, if any, in the conduct of our elections. Freshmen members of your own party are calling your testimony today a "delaying tactic". The fact is, the major bills on campaign reform in the legislative hopper this session are mild, indeed. They call upon candidates to voluntarily accept spending limits in exchange for free broadcast time and discounts on television advertising rates. The bill in the Senate by Senators Feingold and McCain also ban contributions from political action committees. None of the pending bills include the use of tax dollars to finance campaigns. That's too bad. Apparently, you and your allies have succeeded in convincing most Americans that public financing of elections is akin to providing "food stamps to politicians." I would argue that the general perceptions of politicians and the political process would approve if fewer private dollars were involved in the financing of campaigns. I am not suggesting that politicians are bought and paid for by the highest bidder. Rather, I am suggesting is that the appearance of impropriety is the same as actual impropriety and, at the very least, large campaign contributions do provide something very important around this place -- "access." Finally, you rail against the liberal press by claiming that the Des Moines Register in Iowa and the Atlanta Journal Constitution in your home state Georgia have an unfair advantage over conservative politicians and that therefore you must be adequately financed to compete with their editorial writers. Forgetting for a moment that you have conveniently left out the fact that politicians on the other side of political spectrum are not complaining about the Manchester Herald in New Hampshire the Orange County Register in California, the very notion that more money is needed in the political process to compete against the establishment media is absurd on its face. This coming year, the Senate will be losing many fine people from both sides of the isle who are forsaking their political careers. The main complaint heard over and over again from the many senators who are retiring is that they have to spend too much time on the phone "dialing for dollars." You might be right in arguing that the contribution limit of one thousand dollars is too low. But raising it will not stop the campaign war-chest mentality. Those of us who spend the time on the phone asking potential contributors for money know that it is a degrading and demeaning process.

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