Raising campaign funds today is done with near-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're shaking down fellow House members.
The Republican House leadership announced recently that it is 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 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 political observers make it out to be, and in some ways so much worse.
Many believe "money buys elections." But if that were true for general elections, the Republican leadership wouldn't 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'd be robbing Peter to re-elect Paul.
But 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 87 percent of House Republicans as easily winning re-election this year.
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 it over 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 House. The Democrats do this too, but House Republicans have raised the bar by hinging these efforts on the awarding of leadership positions and committee chairs.
This creates a fundraising pecking order, where the "Captains of Cash" are rewarded. This is how political machines and fiefdoms are maintained, with all the progenies of patronage, logrolling, and pork-doling. The Captains of Cash sit atop the pile, dispensing favors and collecting fealty, both within their 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 is, most elections can't be bought. They're already too lopsided and non-competitive due to redistricting to even need to be bought. This allows safe-seat politicians to raise money far beyond their needs, and then sprinkle it around to their colleagues needing a hand.
Such a pyramidal shape to the political landscape distorts democracy much more 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 better understand the full complexity of how our system is malfunctioning, we'll have greater success when reforming it.
Steven Hill is western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org). Rob Richie is the center's executive director. They are co-authors of 'Reflecting All of Us' (Beacon Press, 1999).
(c) Copyright 2000 The Christian Science Publishing Society.