ON NOV. 2, Sen. William Proxmire, 11-Wis., won re-election to his fifth term in the U.S. Senate. His entire campaign expense was less than $150. That’s right, less than $150. And he won by 64.5 percent of the vole cast.
Other senatorial incumbents were spending one to three or more million dollars on their campaigns. In 1984 Sen. Jesse Helms is expected to raise close to $10 million for his reelection bid. Tom Hayden spent nearly $1.5 million just to win his assembly seat in the California legislature!
How does Proxmire do it? He works hard between elections, is articulate and visible whether through television back home or running (literally) around the state and spending a day doing work with blue collar laborers. Six years ago, he won re-election and spent less than $200 for his campaign ( mostly for stationary and postage used to mail back contributions.)
What is remarkable is how little public attention is given to the Proxmire phenomenon. Wisconsin is not a one-party state. The other Wisconsin senator is a Republican. There is no political machine delivering the vote. While Proxmire does go to bat for the state’s dairy industry, he usually is an independent-minded politician who exposes the waste of defense contractors and other corporate shortcomings. He is a leader in demanding that law and order apply to the corporate world and in questioning the banking industry’s overreaching.
Observing Proxmire’s career over the years, I am persuaded that he could win in just about any state of the Union. He is not a regionally lucky senator: his appeal is broad and his non-political speaking style is widely appreciated.
In contrast to Proxmire, most congressional incumbents spent inordinate time and loss of conscience lobbying corporate political action committees (PACs) for money.. PACs representing auto dealers, physicians, oil companies,. home builders, dairy co-ops, commodity brokers and hundreds more special interests were taking the measure of incumbents and candidates to see if they were worth buying into. PAC staff has developed a new jargon, describing challengers as “capital risk ventures.” All in all, PACs poured more than $80 million into congressional campaigns this year.
There are 3,749 political action committees (10 times the number of a decade ago) and their usually greasy roles are themselves becoming campaign issues, with candidates hurling charges against one another’s PAC backers. In Washington and back home, candidates met with their close supporters not to talk about political ideals and programs. The talk was about how much could be contributed. Elections have been massively monetized, and the givers want measurable returns on their investments in their politicians. The current phrase is “the cost-vote ratio.”
A reported $1 billion was spent on the 1982 elections. More was added in kind as materials, services and facilities. The cost of campaigning is growing geometrically from election to election. Members of both parties are openly displaying disgust with the vote-buying impact of this money and its distortion of the political and legislative process. Political parties which could provide a broader platform for politicians are overshadowed by PACs with their demands for very narrow allegiances.
Michigan Democrat Rep. William Broadhead resigned his seat this year, saying: “I got sick of feeling indebted to PACs. There is no reason they give money except in the expectation of votes.”
Republican Sen. Robert Dole complains: “It is making it much more difficult to legislate. We may reach a point where if everybody is buying something with PAC money, we can’t get anything done.”
Many members of Congress complain privately or publicly about this monied frenzy. Yet less than a dozen members of Congress refuse to take PAC money. Sen. Lawton Chiles restricted PAC contributions to no more than $100 per PAC and won his re-election handily.
These are just scattered practical dissents from what author Ed Roeder called “PACs Americana” — a large reference work detailing PAC penetrations candidate by candidate. There still is no movement on Capitol Hill for basic reform of the entire slithery system of private money in politics. What few proposals there are to limit the amount of PAC money a candidate can receive are going nowhere.
The drive for change will not come from Capitol Hill (or what some call Withering Heights). It will come from the voters back home who finally rise to stop the tyranny of the election dollar over the citizens’ franchise.
Whether by a law conditioning public financing grants on the ground that candidates not accept private money or by a truly basic cleanup through a constitutional amendment, the need is clear and compelling. It should be THE campaign issue imposed by the voters on the politicians in the 1984 election campaign.