Taking Back Our Government

The lobbyists in Washington have taken over our government. The desperate need for volumes of money needed today to be elected to office permits the takeover. This week's Nation magazine reports Montana's "Baucus kicked off his 2008 re-election campaign by bluntly asking 50 lobbyists to raise $100,000 each." An article in this week's Time magazine entitled "Tight budgets favor lobbyists" tells how lobbying spending in 2000 was $1.6 billion and last year increased to $3.5 billion.

To be elected the seventh time to the United States Senate in 1998, I had to raise $8.5 million -- which factors out to raising $30,000 a week, each week, every week, for six years. It's not just raising money the year ahead of election. It's all six years. This was 12 years ago. In South Carolina today, it would take $10 million or more. Every waking moment of every member of Congress is focused on fundraising.

We used to have a freshman senator read Washington's Farewell Address on his birthday (February 22nd), and then have debate and votes in the afternoon. Now Lincoln's birthday (February 12th) has been merged with Washington's for a 10-day break to go to California and New York to fundraise. President Obama started his $1 billion campaign last Friday in Chicago and spent the weekend in California fundraising. Congress now has taken a two-week break to fundraise. Congress has breaks every month to fundraise and more time is spent in Washington fundraising than on the people's business. Filibusters are popular because one senator from either side can hold the floor and the rest of the senators can go fundraise. Before I left the Senate in 2005, we were canceling policy committee lunches so senators could go to their party headquarters for two hours to call for money. The senator used to call the leader's office to get a sense of when a vote was going to be called. No more. Now you call a lobbyist on K Street to learn not only when a vote is to be called, but usually he can tell you the outcome before the vote. The lobbyists have taken over the government.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said: "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society." Everybody is for civilization or government. But Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform has 41 senators and 195 congressmen pledged against taxes or paying for government. This week's Newsweek has an article entitled: "Government is broken. These guys can fix it." Then the article details 20 solutions of 20 outstanding Americans. None of the solutions will become law. Reason? No solution mentions money. No solution mentions lobbyists. Lobbyists can block almost everything. That's why we almost had a close-down of government.

Few realize that Congress has already voted the solution to this takeover. In 1971 and 1973 Congress was embarrassed with the fundraising shenanigans of Maurice Stans for Nixon. Stans made it appear that the Congress was up for sale (now is). In 1973, a bipartisan majority of senators voted to limit spending in campaigns. Strom and I were limited to so-much per registered voter, or $386,000. Fast forward for increased costs and inflation, $4 million to $5 million would be a proper limit to be elected in South Carolina, not the $10 million or more required today. But the Supreme Court in the per curiam 5-4 decision of Buckley vs. Valeo set aside the 1973 Act. In a distorted opinion, the Court limited the contributor not the candidate, making the rich candidate have the upper hand for election. Now the Court has given a corporation free speech. James Madison never intended a corporation to have free speech and certainly never intended that free speech be measured or limited by money. We can restore Madison's intent in his First Amendment to the Constitution by passing a Joint Resolution authorizing Congress to limit or control spending in federal elections. Five of the last seven amendments to the Constitution deal with elections, and this is more important than any of the five.

We've tried solutions for 30 years, but McCain-Feingold didn't work, and public finance will never work because states would balk at equalizing the poor candidate for the rich. It would have cost New Jersey $62 million, over $100 million in California, and $70 million for the City of New York. Moreover, the last thing that Congress should start is a new spending program for politics. I introduced a Joint Resolution to amend the Constitution authorizing Congress to regulate or control spending in federal elections. The Governors' Conference called in the '80s to include the states in my Resolution, which I did. I received a bipartisan majority vote for passage, but not the two-thirds vote required for a Joint Resolution. Washington can solve this problem in a New York minute, but House Members and Senators have the advantage of an office and time in Washington to work with the lobbyists, and the president has the rest of this year and next year to raise $1 billion.

Years ago, a friend observed: "Fritz, you've got an impediment in your speech." Thinking of my Charleston accent, I asked: "What impediment?" He answered: "The trouble with you is you can't listen." Limiting spending in campaigns would give the senator time to listen. Lobbyists and special interests would be limited. Monthly breaks for fundraising could be canceled. There would be time to debate rather than fundraise. The vote would not be fixed long before the roll-call. We could have policy meetings again. The fraud of filibusters would cease. Members could come off the fundraising treadmill and serving in Congress would again become enjoyable -- a learning experience. And the people would recoup their government.