The reform of politics requires that politicians tamper with the system by which they were elected. This is why it is so difficult to get political reform. In the field of campaign finance, for example, there are few proposals that do not require members of Congress to gore their own oxen. They are asked to pass laws which would change their previously successful campaign methods, give their challengers more of a break, curb their own fund raising, disclose contributions and expenditures they have hitherto chosen not to disclose. It is no accident, therefore, that, while there have been many proposals, there has been no new law in more than thirty years to change the arrangements by which politicians raise and spend money for their campaigns. One can argue that until there is reform of the way in which those seeking election become indebted to those who have the money to help them, there cannot be fundamental reform of much else in political and legislative life.

No one takes the existing laws seriously. Even Lyndon Johnson, who ought to have known, called them “more loophole than law.” The requirements that members of Congress report what campaign funds they receive and spend are filled with caveats excusing them from doing so. The limits on what individuals can contribute, and on what politicians and political parties can spend, are infinitely stretchable. The prohibition of contributions by corporations and unions can be eluded with no difficulty. The laws are to be “implemented” by employees hired by and serving Congress, and “enforced” by the Department of Justice. Neither political party’s hands are clean, and no politician has ever been prosecuted for breach of the campaign finance laws.

But there is something new in the air, and that is the high cost of the latest fashions in campaigning on television. What is new about it is that the politicians themselves are worried.

Over the years, a senator or representative who wanted to stay in office has generally managed to do so. The incumbent has had the edge, through exposure, capacity to deliver to his constituents, and access to money. The percentage of incumbents reelected has been extraordinarily high in the past two decades (over 90 percent of the representatives and about 85 percent of the senators). But in the 1970 Senate races, more incumbents than usual were defeated. Word has gone out that the latest television techniques are the one instrument by which the incumbent’s advantage can be neutralized.

Seeing spots

The politician has to get on television now, but of course the public has to like what it sees. Television exposure in itself by no means guarantees electoral success. Richard Ottinger in New York and Howard Metzenbaum in Ohio won the primary elections for their Democratic senatorial nominations with extensive use of television, but lost in the finals. The win-loss record of other heavy television spenders leaves a mixed picture. There was some public reaction against canned campaigns. “A two-dimensional, eighteen-inchhigh candidate,” said Senator Gaylord Nelson in Senate debate last year, “presented with all the candor of a laundry product or a dancing dog act does little to assure a concerned public of the relevance and responsiveness of the political process in this country.” Some Democrats say privately that nothing better could befall them than for President Nixon to run the same kind of lavish television campaign in 1972 as he ran in 1968. They believe that so much exposure, so contrived, would backfire.

The fashion in 1970 was spots, which are the most costly of all because the politicians and their managers seek to have them played at prime time. “A politician.” said one senator, “wants twenty seconds during Laugh-In or Ed Sullivan because then he is less likely to be turned off.” “They don’t come to your rallies anymore,” said another. “They won’t listen to your speeches. So you have to go where the voters are—watching the football games on Sunday.”

Looking nervously over their shoulders for the first time, many incumbent politicians want to do something to limit the amount that can be spent for television campaigns. Television has driven the cost of campaigning beyond the means of all but the very rich, not to mention those who are not wealthy and would like to hang on to at least some corner of their souls. In 1956, $9 million was spent by candidates on radio and television advertising; in 1968, the figure rose to over $40 million—an increase of almost 350 percent. Even between 1964 and 1968, the amount rose by 90 percent. There is no total yet for 1970, but the costs of some of the individual campaigns give the picture: in New York, Richard Ottinger spent about $2 million on the primary and another $2 million in the general election for the Senate, and James Buckley, the victorious Conservative candidate, spent about $2 million in the general election. The cost of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s re-election campaign is estimated at anywhere from $10 million to $20 million. At least $1 million each was spent by both John Tunney and George Murphy in the California Senate race, by William Brock of Tennessee and Lloyd Bentsen of Texas in their Senate races, and by others. There will be few contested Senate races next time round that will cost less than $500,000.

The other side of all this is that while the politicians grow increasingly desperate for money, the contributions which are substantial enough to earn the politicians’ gratitude are a mere pittance to those who can afford to make them. Moreover, it is a buyers’ market: so few people contribute at all that it has been estimated that 90 percent of the political money comes from no more than 10 percent of the population. As Federal Communications Commissioner Nicholas Johnson has put it: “Suppose, for example, you represent one of the corporations that receives over $1 billion a year in Defense Department contracts. [The top ten defense contractors split $10.7 billion among them.] How much would it cost you to make a modest campaign contribution to all elected officials? Let us assume a contribution of $2000 for every incumbent congressman, $6000 for every incumbent senator, and $100,000 for each of the two major parties’ candidates for President. The total bill? A mere $585,000 a year. Assume a few additional wellplaced contributions of $50,000 to those fifteen congressmen and ten senators who hold special power over your company—enough to bring the total to $1 million a year. This is still an extraordinarily modest investment of one tenth of one percent of your annual return from the federal government. In fact, of course, no one corporation needs to contribute to all congressmen and senators, so the total costs would actually be much lower.”

Politicians who will talk candidly about this (as long as they are not quoted by name) confirm the point. “Money?” said one senator. “That’s the dark side of the moon of politics. Nobodv will really tell you all about it. I’ll need $600,000 for my next campaign. You don’t raise that kind of money from schoolchildren or with UNICEF drives. You look for guys who will give you five, ten, fifteen thousand, and then you remember that they did. That fellow can always get in to see you; a welfare mother can’t. The real find is someone with a lot of money who doesn’t want anything. They’re rare, and when you find one, you guard him like your wife. You don’t tell anyone else about it. There are some people like that, particularly in New York. They just like knowing a senator, and it’s a way to; otherwise, they never see one.” Or take what another senator says; “The evil of money is not just the amounts that have to be spent, but what is involved in raising big money. I’ll need a half million the next time around. You can’t raise that with five-dollar bills. Should I have to call a union or an oil company executive and say, ‘I’m broke; I need another twenty grand’? You become unwittingly and unhappily trapped by the nature of your contributors.”

Stretching the ends

The access of money to power is simply one of the givens in Washington. One of the most striking things about Lady Bird Johnson’s memoirs is the number of references to the rich who attached themselves to that particular First Family—to Brooke Astor and Mary Lasker and Laurance Rockefeller and the Henry Fords and the Charles Englehards, to their parties and their estates and their jewels and their favors for the White House.

Richard Nixon took some wealthy businessmen on a cruise on the Potomac to discuss the economy. The unemployed, or workers strapped by the inflation-recession, were taken for no similar ride. When Bernard Lasker, Chairman of the Board of the New York Stock Exchange and a major conduit between the White House and New York money, celebrated his birthday last year, the Nixons gave him and his friends a White House reception, which was followed by a dinner dance given by the Agnews. The Justice Department approved, over the objections of its antitrust division, the merger of Parke, Davis & Company with WarnerLambert Pharmaceutical, whose former chairman is Elmer Bobst, whom President Nixon refers to as his “honorary father.”

Many senators live beyond their means. The “Nixon fund,” by which several businessmen subsidized the Nixons during his Senate career, and which caused a short-lived furor in the 1952 presidential campaign, was really not all that unusual, at least in concept. Some senators explain that they stretch the ends and then make them meet by letting others pick up their entertaining expenses, pay for their vacations, or arrange for a sizeable honorarium in exchange for a speech. One former Senate aide recalls that there was always a sufficient and unexplained amount of cash in the office if someone wanted to take a trip. Only once in a while do the specific facts emerge—that, for example, Senator George Murphy’s living and travel expenses were subsidized by Technicolor, Inc.

The trouble with talking about all this is that there is no way to measure the degree of venality, if any, involved. And even politicians should be forgiven their friends—to a point. But anyone who supposes that the various segments of society get an even chance at access to power in this democracy is blinking at the facts. As long as there is human nature, and at least part of it is greed, there is no way of legislating or enforcing ethics. But one thing that can be done is to break the power of money over those who would like not to be beholden to it, and another is to make it more possible to find out who is beholden to whom. This is what the proposals for political reform are really all about.


It was with the politicians’ selfinterest in mind that the forces for reform—some senators and their stalls, and the National Committee for an Effective Congress, which backs liberal candidates—designed a legislative strategy last year that began with lowering the cost of purchasing television time and limiting the amount that could be spent for it. Thus, in one stroke, they would have put limits on the most expensive aspect of campaigns, lowered the cost to the politicians of buying television time, and ensured that challengers could not outspend the incumbents. The other ways in which the already elected politicians enjoy an edge over their challengers—free use of the mails, free travel, and so on—were not disturbed. Senators privately referred to the bill as the “Incumbents’ Preservation Act.” It passed Congress by substantial margins.

The White House and the broadcasting industry were apparently asleep at the switch. Moreover, although the broadcasters opposed the legislation, they knew it might have been worse—for example, requiring them to give even more time at a discount or, worst of all, free time— had it not been for the intervention of some of their friends in Congress. Of all of the reasons President Nixon gave for vetoing the bill, he did not mention the two that are commonly presumed to have been uppermost in his mind. One was that since the bill also covered spending for presidential elections, it would virtually have cancelled the Republican Party’s substantial monetary advantage over the Democrats. Parties’ reports of their expenditures are casual. To the extent that anyone can tell, the Republicans spent about $12 million for broadcasting in the 1968 presidential campaign. The Democrats spent about $6 million. (Under existing law, each party is theoretically limited to overall expenditures of only $3 million.) The vetoed bill would have limited presidential campaign television spending to $5.5 million for each party.

The second presumed reason for the veto was that the bill also carried a provision repealing legislation requiring that “equal time” be given to all presidential candidates. Because the existing law would require that candidates from all fringe parties be given time, it precludes debates of the sort that Messrs. Nixon and Kennedy waged in 1960, something Mr. Nixon is very interested in continuing to preclude. These two issues, plus the simple fact of a presidential veto of a reform, turned the bill into a partisan matter, and the fight to override the veto in the Senate into a major political issue.

“The White House worked as hard on this one,” said one moderate Republican senator who favored the legislation, “as on Haynsworth and Carswell.” The National Association of Broadcasters sent a letter with URGENT across the top, exhorting its member radio and television stations to write, wire, or call their senators and representatives. They did. The broadcasting industry is one pressure group to which the politicians are particularly sensitive, and some of the not-so-subtle messages the politicians were given by them indicate why. A few senators and congressmen were made to understand by local stations that their press releases and film clips just might not make it onto the air, or that the camera might catch them at unflattering angles. One senator, upon being told by a local station that it might not use his press releases and TV clips, informed the station that he would be watching its programming. (Local stations, after all, must have their licenses renewed by the FCC, and it helps to keep their senators friendly.) The station spokesman said that he hadn’t meant it; the senator knew that he had.

The major issue that the broadcasters and their friends used against the bill was that it was “discriminatory,” and that spending for newspaper and billboard advertising ought to be covered, too. Between them, the forces of the White House and the broadcasters were able to persuade enough senators to change their positions, and the President’s veto was upheld. The changes were on the part of a few Republicans, some senators angry at the National Committee for an Effective Congress for having opposed them, and Southern Democrats.

The President sent a letter to the Senate reaffirming his position that the legislation was too limited in scope and discriminatory against broadcasting, and pledging to cooperate on a new bill in the next Congress. One of the President’s Senate supporters said he does not “glean” from the letter that the Administration itself would offer legislation. But the fight over the television bill has, if anything, broadened interest in reform, and convinced even more politicians that they had better do something, or appear to do something, about it. So the President may well find himself hoist on his own veto. How much actually happens will depend largely upon the extent to which the politicians feel that that the public is fed up.

Setting limits

A number of proposals have been put forward recently, some dealing with just the television issue, others going further. Backers of reform are now searching for some sort of consensus, and for a plausible strategy. As for television, the bill that was ultimately defeated last year will be resubmitted. It has been proposed that the limits on spending be broadened to cover other campaign formats, such as newspaper advertisements and billboards. There are proposals for government subsidy of some of the cost of television time, with strict limits on the additional amounts that could be spent for broadcast campaigning. Some members of Congress have suggested limiting, or even eliminating, the use of spots. It has been proposed in several quarters that television stations, which make handsome sums through use of the public airwaves, be required to provide free television time for political campaigns. This is the least likely of enactment, being the one the broadcasters most vehemently oppose.

Even if limits are put on spending for television, the dependence on big money will be eased, but not eliminated. There are a number of ideas floating about, some old, some new, for dealing with the other costs of campaigning, and the obligations that result. The idea of a tax credit or deduction for political contributions in small amounts, say up to $50, has been put forward for years. The assumption is that this would encourage more contributions, but it is not at all clear that this would be true to any significant extent. If more people had wanted to contribute to the parties, they probably would have, with or without a deduction for it. John Gardner’s new citizens’ lobby, Common Cause, has in six months attracted over 50,000 members, at a basic (nondeductible) membership fee of $15, with many voluntarily contributing more. As things are going, he will have 100,000 members and have raised over $1.5 million by this spring. But all this proves is that Gardner’s project is appealing to something out there, probably a reaction against conventional politics as practiced by the parties. Gardner has, in fact, sued the parties, to enjoin them from continuing to flout the campaign finance laws. The idea is to build the pressure on Congress to make the laws more realistic and enforceable.

There are proposals for a total government subsidy for campaigns. The model is Great Britain, where campaigns are subsidized and candidates are forbidden to receive or spend any other funds. It is uncertain what this would cost, but whatever the amount, it would be far less expensive than many other things the government pays for because elections are run on a “private enterprise” economy. The half-billion government dollars it would cost to pay for national elections is not very much compared to, say, the present cost of buying a worthless airplane. But while this proposal may make the most sense, the public would probably take some time to grow accustomed to it, and the politicians perhaps forever to accept it. Moreover, this is far more reform than the traditional big givers, business and labor, interested in maintaining their opportunities to invest in the political market, would tolerate. With some exceptions among the unions, these groups are neutral-to-opposed when reform proposals come up.

The politicians cannot be expected to be enthusiastic about providing challengers with benefits that incumbents enjoy. At the least, reformers argue, challengers might be given the free mailing privileges that incumbents have, or some free travel. There are other proposals for placing more realistic and more enforceable limits on spending, but such limits just aren’t very enforceable. It is too difficult to track down where all the money went. A limit on spending for television, by contrast, is more manageable, because the stations’ logs are open to public examination.

The principle that public scrutiny would in itself reform the manner in which political money changes hands is what lies behind the proposal, favored by a number of people, for a loophole-less, enforceable law requiring complete disclosure of all receipts and expenditures of funds. The theory is that this is more realistic than trying to impose spending limits. The opposition and the press, it is argued, would take care of making sure the public knows where the money is coming from, and some hitherto generous contributors would prefer not to have the publicity.

“What are the chances,” I asked a senator who backs such a proposal, “of your colleagues voting for that?”

“What are the chances,” he asked by way of reply, “of your being the first woman on the moon?”