Politicians Even Shake Down Their Own

Raising campaign funds today is done with religious fervor, as politicians shake down everyone from corporate CEOs and movie moguls to Christian PACs and Buddhist monks. But Congressional leaders recently set a whole new standard -- now they are shaking down their fellow House members.

The Republican House leadership announced recently that they are hinging the reward of leadership positions and chairmanships of powerful committees to those incumbents who raise the most money for the party. Since committee chairs have near-dictatorial powers to set committee dockets, dole out pork and establish the national agenda, this plan debases government to a whole new level of crassness and political patronage.

But beyond that, this sordid episode reveals something more fundamental about the role money plays in politics. The situation is so much more complicated than many campaign finance reformers make it out to be, and in some ways so much worse.

The typical campaign finance reformer rant is that "money buys elections." But if that were true, the Republican leadership would not be able to shake down their fellow Republicans. Nor would they want to, because these incumbents would need that money for their own re-elections. They would be robbing Peter to re-elect Paul.

But the fact is that most incumbents don't need the money for their own re-election. That's because they live in safe, non-competitive districts where incumbents have about as much chance of losing as a snowball melting at the North Pole. The respected Cook Political Report lists a whopping 87 percent of House Republicans as easily winning re-election in 2000.

Most of these safe seats were carved out of conservative areas of the country during the last redistricting. The decennial redistricting process, which is about to revisit us in 2001, is when all legislative lines are gerrymandered to make most congressional districts lopsided, either for Republicans or Democrats (90 percent of House Democrats also are safe). No matter how much money opponents raise in these carefully crafted districts, their chances of winning are about as good as that snowball's melting.

So Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert can twist the arms of these safe-seat Republicans to raise money they don't need -- and then hand over the money to party leaders. The leadership then will target this soft money like a laser to the two dozen competitive races that will decide control of the U.S. House. The Democrats do this too, but House Republicans have raised the bar by hinging these efforts to the awarding of leadership positions and committee chairs.

This creates a fund-raising pecking order, where the "Captains of Cash" are rewarded. This is how political machines and fiefdoms are created and maintained, with all its progenies of patronage, logrolling and pork-doling. The Captains of Cash sit atop the pile, dispensing favors and collecting fealty, both within their own personal districts and within the House of Representatives.

The corruptive effects on our democracy are obvious. But that's not the same as money buying elections. The fact of the matter is, most elections can't be bought. They already are too lopsided and non-competitive to even need to be bought. This allows safe-seat politicians to raise money far beyond their own needs, and then sprinkle it around to their colleagues needing a hand.

Such a pyramidal shape to our political landscape is much more distorting of our democracy than simply money buying elections. It means that political leaders can create their own political machines. It means that donors are giving money to candidates they know will win, because the district has been drawn to produce that result. Donors usually are buying access and influence, not elections.

If we don't understand the full complexity of how our system is malfunctioning, we will miss the mark when we try to reform it.

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