What It Costs to Run
SENATOR PAUL H. DOUGLAS of Illinois entered his chosen field of economics following his graduation from Bowdoin in 1913. The publication of his definitive study of Real Wages in the United States led to his appointment to various government commissions. In the spring of 1942, at the age of fifty, he enlisted as a private in the Marine Corps; he was wounded at Peleliu and at Okinawa. and was decorated for heroic achievement in action. Honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, he re-entered politics, defeating Senator ‘’Curly" Brooks, the McCormick candidate. In the Senate he is a liberal in domestic affairs and an internationalist in foreign. The paper which follows is drawn from his new book, Ethics in Government, to be published by the Harvard University Press.
by SENATOR PAUL H. DOUGLAS
THE average citizen does not realize how much it costs to finance elections and to run for office. Nor did I when I was first chosen by a group of fellow citizens to be a candidate for alderman from my ward in Chicago. The position of alderman paid $5000 a year and the term of office was four years. Looking backward, I can only smile at my mingled innocence and egotism. For at first I thought that once I was nominated the voters of the ward would then quickly recognize my virtues and abilities and, without much effort on my part, would spontaneously flock to my support and send me to the City Council by a big majority. It took me only twenty-four hours to be freed from that illusion. The vast majority of the 45,000 voters in the ward did not know me from Adam, and in addition they had something of a distaste for college professors.
It was obviously necessary that I should get out and meet the voters. “Standing” for office was not enough, so I started a program of “walking for office. I went about the ward during the mornings fmd early afternoons meeting people, shaking hands and talking directly to them. Then we would arrange a series of house meetings for the late afternoons and evenings. This was a marvelous experience. It gave me a deep faith in the fundamental decency and good judgment of the American voters, and this faith has increased with the years.
But I soon discovered that we needed lots of money to keep the campaign going. The headquarters had to be operated, printing and postage paid for, letters sent out, posters put up, advertising placed in papers, some payments made to men and women who could not afford to give their time, and so forth. Before I was elected my campaign manager (who gave up his business for the duration) had been forced to spend $10,000. And every dollar of this was honestly expended. About half of the total was given by loyal friends. I gave the rest. But this was not all. Although nominated by independents, I had been endorsed by the Democratic organization under somewhat striking circumstances which this is not the place to chronicle. Although I was a college professor and regarded as a “reformer,” the organization supported me loyally in the bitter struggle which quickly developed. Actually no group could have been more zealous or determined than they. I have good reason to believe that they spent not less than $20,000 to help me get elected. On the other hand, my unsuccessful opponent must have spent close to $40,000. From later conversations with my fellow aldermen, I concluded that these were usual expenditures and that there were about the same costs in the other forty-nine wards of the city. Let me repeat that the position of alderman paid $5000 a year.
This disparity between campaign costs and salary suggests some of the problems which confront candidates for office and which continue to haunt them after they have been elected. Let me add another fact. While I probably gave less to charity than any other alderman, every year it cost me more than my $5000 salary to run my aldermanic office and to make modest contributions to civic causes and organizations. If I had not kept a separate job by which I earned my living between the hours of 8 A.M. and 1 P.M., I would have been forced either to leave politics or to become a crook.
As I have continued in politics, I have become more and more conscious of the tremendous amounts of money which parties and candidates need for elections. For example, $10,000 seems to be the minimum sum which a congressional candidate must spend in a closely contested district. More commonly he will spend two to three times this amount.
I think I know something of the costs of running for the United States Senate. I estimate that the minimum cost for a senatorial candidate in a fairly large state is from $150,000 to $200,000. Printing alone would probably cost $50,000. Billboard advertising and posters would require an equal amount. The costs of headquarters, meetings, travel, the salaries of publicity mem and clerks, postage, mailing, telephone and telegraph bills, will absorb another $50,000. And finally there are radio and television, the costs of which are constantly increasing and which would probably require still another $50,000.
Actually the figure of $200,000 is low compared with the published costs of the 1950 senatorial campaign in Ohio. Here the committee backing the Republican candidate admitted that they spent at least $511,000. Committees supporting him and other Republican candidates spent an additional $1,297,000.
When we come to presidential elections, we move into the realm of almost astronomical figures. For example, I am informed on good authority that an adequate national radio and television program for the country as a whole takes about $3 million. When we add other costs, the minimum figure for a vigorous presidential campaign is probably not far from $6 million. While an estimate of total campaign costs at all levels of government in a presidential year has a large margin of error, it would not surprise me if the expenditures of both parties together were not far from $75 million. These are formidable figures.
How are these enormous sums of money raised? There are three main sources: the candidates themselves and the small and big contributors. Wealthy candidates for office are commonly very welcome since they help to solve the ever pressing financial needs. They are sometimes called “fat cats.”There is some popular prejudice against men of wealth, however, and not many of them have the intestinal fortitude to expose themselves to the rough-and-tumble of a political campaign.
The small voluntary contributors are the salt of the earth. They give because they believe in a candidate or a party, although they realize that their contributions are so small that they will not receive any special favors in return. Those men and women help to keep the parties as decent as they are, and they enable candidates to be far more independent than they would be otherwise. I could never have been elected to office without the loyal and understanding aid of this group, and I shall never cease to be grateful to them.
But ordinarily the small contributions meet only a minor fraction of the costs. The average voter feels that he has more than done his duty when he votes. Having something of a contempt for “politics” and politicians, he thinks himself above the battle for electoral victory. It probably never occurs to him to help the contestants, for his feeling towards candidates is one of disdain. Why should he subsidize what he regards as the “dirty game of politics”?
In any case, it would take a vast volume of small contributions to finance a campaign. Even the bookkeeping comes high. Thus my independent committee found that it cost, about 50 cents to receive, enter, and acknowledge a contribution so a gift of $1 would net only half that amount.
In the main, therefore, elections are financed by the big contributors. Some of these men are sincere believers in the principles of the candidates or party they favor. These men will ask for nothing specific in return, although they will help to orient and determine the general course of party policies. There are, moreover, some who view political campaigns much as others regard horse racing. These men find the process itself interesting and will back their favorites out of a sense of personal loyalty. But the vast majority of big donors want something in return for their money. Their gifts are in a sense investments. After election, if their candidates are victorious, they come around to collect. They will want contracts, insurance policies, jobs for friends and relations, loans, subsidies, privileges, legislation, and so on. Woe betide the officeholders and the party that ignore their claims! For if they do, then next time the money is likely to be shut off.
The general result is that the big contributors not only get their money back but make a big profit in addition. Of course, it is the public which pays indirectly not only for elections but also for the handsome profit to those who have grubstaked the candidates.
THOSE who feel distressed by what I have outlined can help the situation by giving more of themselves to candidates and parties in which they believe. Voting is merely the start and not the end of good citizenship. If we want to make our candidates and parties more independent of the big donors and the so-called “fat cats,” we must be willing to give more liberally to their campaign funds. Politicians, like most human beings, would like to be independent and to work for the public interest to the fullest possible degree. If the sources of their campaign funds are more widely distributed, they will be able to do so to a much greater extent than now.
We should adopt a second remedy and fix a ceiling on the total amounts which a candidate or party may spend. Otherwise, those who can raise great sums of money will continue to possess an advantage over those without funds. And the big contributors will continue to get their pay-off after the election.
Great Britain has been driven to set a precedent in this matter. In British parliamentary elections not more than 8 pence per voter can be spent for a candidate in a rural district, nor more than 7 pence in a city constituency. With depreciation of the pound, this is equal to 8 or 7 cents a voter in our money. This would amount to a total of about $375,000 in my state of Illinois. A candidate should be able to “jog along” with such a sum as this.
Admittedly, it would be harder to limit total campaign expenditures in this country than it is in Great Britain. The British parliamentary elections are isolated from the local elections; so no other candidates are voted upon at the same time. In our country, presidential and congressional candidates are voted for upon the same ballot, which also contains the candidates for slate and county offices and sometimes for local units as well. There is, therefore, a problem of parallel jurisdictions. Were the Federal Government to fix a limit on the total amounts to be spent for a candidate or party, the federal law could be avoided by transferring funds to the stale and local units of a party, which are after all the actual terrain for the party battles. Unless there were parallel legislation in the states, the state organizations could then print the added literature, pay for radio and television time, go to the expense of arranging meetings, and hire poll and party workers.
But there should ultimately be some limitations effected. Certainly our present regulations under the Federal Corrupt Practices Act are faulty and incomplete. Thus a maximum limit of $25,000 is placed on the total amount which can be spent in the final election by a candidate for the United States Senate and $5000 by a candidate for the House of Representatives.
Similarly, a ceiling of $3 million is set on the amount which the National Committee of a party can spend in a presidential campaign.
In a small state such as Vermont, Delaware, or Nevada, the sum of $25,000 may be enough for a senatorial campaign, as it probably is in the final elections of one-party states. For in such states, the real contest is for nomination in the majority party. Once a man is nominated in such states, his election is simple and virtually automatic. But the federal law fixes no limit on the amount to be spent in the primaries. This is the first weakness in the act.
The second weakness is that $25,000 is not enough, as I have indicated, for a vigorous campaign in a large state which has a lively rivalry between the parties. This being the case, what actually happens is that friends of the senatorial candidate form independent committees to promote his candidacy. These committees are not limited in the amounts which they spend for the candidate, nor do they report the contributions which they receive or the sums which they spend. That requirement applies only to the personal receipts and expenditures of the candidate.
As a result, independent committees spring up in prolific fashion. There are businessmen’s committees, labor committees, farmers’ committees, women’s committees, young voters’ committees, foreign-language committees — in fact a wide variety of committees. These groups solicit and spend funds which they are not required to report. Generally in senatorial campaigns there is one principal independent committee which raises and spends most of the money for a candidate. The candidate is and should be careful not to know any of the details of the work of this committee. But his managers almost always keep in close touch with the operations and in some cases direct them. It is in this way that the utterly unrealistic ceiling of $25,000 on expenditures is avoided. These independent committees pay for the radio and television time, the pamphlets, billboards, and meetings, and finance some of the satellite committees. Meanwhile the candidate may pay merely for his traveling expenses, personal assistants, and incidental costs. If the committee is affluent, it will also give money to the party committees in the state and in the counties to pay for workers at the polls on election day.
This technique of developing a large number of independent committees was first introduced on a national scale in 1940 by the advisers of Wendell Willkie. Since the expenditures by the National Committee were limited to $3 million, other groups were formed which also raised and spent money. Obviously, if we are to limit total expenditures in order to reduce the power of money at elections, we must fix the limit on the over-all sums spent in behalf of, rather than by, a candidate and party. To do this effectively, only one organization should be authorized to distribute, collect, and spend funds.
But the practical question would remain, how high should the ceiling on expenditures be? Obviously the same ceiling should not be set for New York, California, Pennsylvania, and Illinois as for Nevada, Vermont, and Wyoming. The limit, therefore, should be in terms of a given amount for each registered voter, and not a fixed sum per state.
It is not dear how much the allowance per voter should be. An approximately informed guess would be to fix national ceilings at 10 cents per registered voter for the presidential, senatorial, and congressional candidates. Appropriate state limits should also be fixed. As a necessary first step we might start with a federal law requiring full publicity on the total amounts collected and spent for candidates and parties in presidential, senatorial, and congressional campaigns.
A THIRD possible remedy is to have campaign expenses within some moderate limit paid for by the community out of taxes. This proposal will of course arouse immediate opposition on two grounds. First it would create an added tax burden at a time when the load seems as heavy as men can stand; second, it means taking over a field which is now left to the voluntary efforts of individuals.
But these arguments ignore some of the basic points we have considered. The people now pay, after an election, many times over, the actual costs of the campaign. As we have seen, the big contributors make huge profits as a group upon their investment in both the candidates and parties. This is because of the contracts, privileges, subsidies, and legislation which are granted to them as compensation for their advances.
For the people, it would be far cheaper if the government met the costs of the campaigns, since then the elected officials and parties would not be under obligation to the big contributors. Not being under such obligation, the elected officials and those under them would be able to act and to legislate far more freely in the public interest. The vast, majority of politicians, like most men, desire in their hearts to be good public servants, and they fall short of this ideal largely to the degree to which they have been trapped by the terrific pressures of political life.
While it is highly important to encourage more people to take part in the work of the parties and in political campaigns, this would not be prevented by such a provision. It might even encourage greater participation. For while people could not give money, they could give time. And it is personal effort which is the most emotionally rewarding form of political activity. Volunteers would be needed to call on the voters, to arrange meetings, mail literature, and perform the thousand and one activities which are needed in a political campaign. Indeed, the removal of large “slush funds” would encourage more amateurs to carry on political activity since they would be freed from the overwhelming weight as well as the subtle temptations of the power of money.
Of course it would be necessary to work out a number of technical problems before any such plan could succeed. One major issue would be the determination of how many parties were to be financed. I believe in the general merits of the American two-party system. This system gives greater stability to government than the multiparty European system with its precarious and shifting coalitions. But excellent as our two-parly system has been, on the whole, at times one or both of the parties become decadent and corrupt. Thus the Federalist Party perished of its own mistakes and after fifteen years was succeeded by the Whig Party. Out of the political ferment of the 1850s, with the degeneration of the Whigs and the rise of splinter groups such as the Free-Soil, Know-Nothing, and Anti-Nebraska Democrats, was born the new Republican Party. And similarly in 1912 Theodore Roosevelt and his followers created the Progressive Party.
Any system of government financing should permit such parties to develop, while on the other hand it should restrain the growth of a multiplicity of splinter parties. For example, there would be no obligation for the community to finance tho campaigns of the Prohibition or Socialist Labor Partyon equal terms with those of the Republicans and Democrats. Similarly it would be improper for the government to finance the campaigns of parties committed to the forcible overthrow of the government, as is the Communist Party.
On the whole, therefore, it would seem wise to limit public financing to those parties which at the last election polled 10 per cent of the popular vote, and to allow Other parties to depend on private financing. This is not a perfect solution, but if resolves some of the major difficulties by encouraging the continuance of the two-party system although leaving the door open for change.
A second issue is whether this public financing should apply only to the general elections or whether it should also be extended to the primaries. Here we should remember that there are approximately twenty one-party states where nomination by the dominant party is generally tantamount to election. To finance only the final elections would, therefore, be to grasp at a shadow and to miss the substance. Precisely the same arguments apply in these primaries as those we have discussed under general elections.
However, if primary campaigns are to be financed, a somewhat modified rule would have to be adopted namely, that a refund would be made to those candidates who polled a given percentage, such as 15 or 20 per cent of the vote. They would finance their own campaigns, but if they received a certain proportion of the vote, they would be reimbursed for their expenses. These in turn should not exceed the stated limit.
The place to start with such a program is with the Presidency, which is not only the most important office in this country, and indeed in the world, but also the one office, above all others, which the people value and in which they want to have a voice. I would suggest, therefore, that we find out how much money is being spent for this office by the major parties and their affiliated committees during the current presidential campaign of 1952. This should
give us a basis for living a ceiling upon total expenses to be allowed for the presidential campaigns of 1956; and if public opinion then approves of meeting or underwriting these costs, the experiment could be launched.