In 1987, GOP Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell often took to the floor of the Senate to call for the elimination of Political Action Committees (PACs).
PACs, the bombastic McConnell said, represented a scourge on society, a scab on the body politic and a threat to America as we knew it.
McConnell’s attack against PACs came with the blessing of the National Republican Party, the minority party in Congress at the time, which meant they got what was left after PACs distributed most of their largesse on the controlling Democratic Party.
Over on the House side, Rep. Guy VanderJagt, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, added to the war on PACs.
“PACs are nothing but a bunch of whores,” VanderJagt said.
In 1987, as Vice President for Political Programs at the National Association of Realtors, I ran the county’s largest PAC, a multi-million dollar monster that dispensed money to politicians like Mad Dog 20/20 to winos, feeding their political campaign fundraising habits with frequent fixes.
So it was inevitable that VanderJagt and I would meet in public debate – a televised one on PBS.
The Congressman from Michigan repeated his charge that PACs, in his and his party’s opinion, were “nothing but a bunch of whores.”
“There’s a problem with your analogy,” I replied. “Where I come from, whores aren’t the one who pay. Whores are the ones standing there, with their hand out, asking for money in advance for something they are, at that point, only promising to deliver. I think we all should remember that when one pays money under those circumstances, the very best one can get is screwed.”
VangerJagt never spoke to me again, no great loss, and I left the political world in 1992, only to run across Mitch McConnell again shortly after the Republicans seized control of both the Senate and the House in the 1994 elections.
In 1995, I covered an appearance by McConnell at The American Heritage Foundation in Washington. The man who wanted PACs outlawed eight years earlier now sang a different tune.
“You can’t outlaw PACs,” he told the audience. “That would be unconstitutional. PACs represent a basic freedom of political activity and I will do everything in my power to protect that freedom.”
With Republicans in control of both Houses of Congress, McConnell knew he had to butter up the big money boys. As soon as Republicans won control, the pattern of giving by PACs shifted to the GOP side of the fence. McConnell and his party would stall serious attempts to reform campaign finance laws in the coming years.
“Senator,” I asked McConnell after his speech at the American Heritage Foundation, “you called for outlawing PACs in 1987 and now you claim to be their biggest booster. What happened to change your mind?”
“In 1987, I was carrying water for the Republican leadership and I said what they asked me to say,” he responded.
“Are you saying you didn’t believe what you said then?”
“I said what the Republican leadership asked me to say.”
“Do you believe PACs should be outlawed?”
“Of course not. I never did.”
McConnell opposed the 2002 campaign finance reform bill that banned soft money (unlimited campaign contributions to political parties) and prevented special interest groups from spendinig corporate or labor union money on broadcast ads that mention a candidate just prior to an election. Political parties collected nearly $500 million in soft money contributions during the 2002 elections.
Shortly after the bill was signed by President Bush, several groups filed lawsuits, challenging the law’s constitutionality. The AFL-CIO, American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association said the legislation’s curbs on issue ads were an unconstitutional limit on free speech. McConnell and the Republican National Committee also filed lawsuits, asking for the law’s ban on soft money contributions to be struck down.
In May 2003, a federal court ruled that the new law’s ban on soft money was unconstitutional, allowing the political parties to resume raising the unlimited campaign contributions. The court restricted how soft money could be spent, however, prohibiting political parties from using it to run issue ads. The court also rejected the law’s ban on issue ads by special interest groups in the weeks leading up to an election, instead adopting a stricter standard that applies to ads aired at any time.
The decision was automatically appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case in a special extended session. In December 2003, the Court ruled 5-4 to uphold the soft money and issue ad restrictions.
As with most campaign “reforms,” those with money quickly found ways around the new law’s limitations, forming “527” advocacy groups to pump money into Congressional races and Presidential campaigns.
Politicians know it takes lots of money to win elections and even more money to stay in office.
From the time a member of the House or Senate is elected, they are already working on re-election, launching extensive fund-raising operations. Lavish campaign contributions, along with gifts, vacations to exotic locales and other outright bribes, lie the center of the corruption investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a continuing scandal that has already sent former California Republican Congressman Randy “Duke” Cuningham to jail, implicated scandal-ridden former House Majority Leader Tom Delay and threatens to bring down at least a half-dozen other members of both the House and Senate.
Candidates, and various organizations that either back or oppose them, are expected to spend more than a billion dollars this year in the November mid-term elections – breaking the record set just two years ago in the 2004 Presidential year.
The cost will continue to go up until something is done to stop the corruptive influence of money on the political process.
Part of the answer lies in what Mitch McConnell advocated in 1987 – the outright elimination of political action committees.
But getting rid of PACs, and their pervasive domination of the process, is only a start.
Steps must be taken to limit the endless cycle of campaigns, from 24/7 fundraising to non-stop electioneering. Some ideas:
CAP THE COSTS OF CAMPAIGNS: Perhaps no more than $500,000 for a House race, $1 million for a Senate campaign. Require newspapers, television and radio stations to provide space or time, pro-rated equally, for candidates to present their positions. Eliminate political ads.
ELIMINATE OUTSIDE MONEY FROM CONGRESSIONAL ELECTIONS: Candidates should be required to raise money only within their districts. No donations from interests or individuals who have no connection to a state or district.
BAN OUTSIDE SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS: This means 527 organizations or others from inserting themselves into a Congressional or Senate campaign. The late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said “all politics is local.” Let’s make it that way again.
This is just a start of the more comprehensive ideas for campaign reform that we will be offering in coming weeks as part of a new non-partisan, grassroots educational organizations that launches on May 1.
Stay tuned. The fun continues.