Wouldn’t it be refreshing to know that a huge conflict of interest had been eliminated from Congress and that every senator and representative is motivated to vote for legislation that benefits the country rather than big money campaign contributors? Our campaign-financing system encourages the opposite and is destroying America. We need constitutional amendments to fix the way we elect our Congress.
On average it costs $5 million to run for a Senate seat and more than $1.5 million to run for the House of Representatives — much more in the larger states. An average citizen, even a prosperous one, does not have the resources to run. And who would risk that kind of money for a job that pays $174,000 per year? Sure, a challenger should be able to elicit financial support from constituents, but it is not fair when the incumbents have a huge head start. They always do. That is why more than 90 percent of members in Congress who run for reelection win, despite their poor performances.
Big Money fills the incumbents’ coffers. By the next election, incumbents have a huge head-start over challengers. In the 2010 congressional election cycle, the top 10 industries giving campaign contributions each dished out between $35 million and $150 million. Big Money doesn’t give without getting something in return. The “return” is votes for legislation favoring Big Money. It is a conflict of interest that would not be tolerated in any other area of our society.
Who is Big Money? Open Secrets, Center for Responsive Politics — http://www.opensecrets.org — which collects campaign-financing information, calls contributors who give $200 or less small contributors. In its “Heavy Hitters” section, it lists the 140 biggest givers in federal-level politics since 1989. The list includes big banks whose contributions helped them avoid reenactment of Glass-Steagall, the act that protected our economy from financial disasters like that which occurred in 2008. The lion’s share of political contributions to Congress comes from Big Money.
The most influential in Congress, committee chairpersons, generally receive more than 90 percent of their contributions from Big Money. Check out www.maplight.org. There is nothing wrong with supporting a candidate who shares your political convictions. But that is not what is happening when seven of the top 10 industries gave almost equally to both parties. The desire to get reelected and retain their powerful jobs encourages incumbents to put Big Money interests ahead of what is good for the country. They vote the way Big Money wants to keep the campaign contributions coming in. It is naive to think anything else.
The only way to fix Congress is to impose term limits, limit the amount of political contributions and eliminate contributions by corporations. Each requires an amendment to the Constitution. Amendments must start in Congress or by the vote of state legislatures. Incumbents and political parties are thriving on the system as it is. There is no chance that they will allow meaningful change. The only way to change the Constitution is by using our voting power.
OTO-AMEND — “one term only” — is an answer and perhaps the most realistic way voters can change the system. We must pledge to never re-elect anyone to Congress until the Constitution is amended to limit campaign financing to individuals in reasonable amounts and to adopt term limits. It won’t happen until those in office know they are not going to be reelected. Only then will Congress be open to changing campaign financing and considering term limits.
Exactly how the system will be changed is not important now. There will be plenty of time for a national discourse on what the new rules will be. We have plenty of smart people to work on it. The important thing now is to clear the way so that we have a Congress that will be open to reform.
On Nov. 6, vote for the challengers, all of them. And then give them one term and one term only to make way for the necessary changes
Thomas L. David is an attorney in Miami.