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Money cancer in politics
By ERNEST F. HOLLINGS, former U. S. senator

SEPT. 29, 2010 -- Money, a growing cancer in politics, needs to be excised. In my seventh election to the United States Senate in 1998, I had to raise $8.5 million. $8.5 million factors to $30,000 a week, each week, every week, for six years. It's not just raising campaign funds the year ahead of the election any more. In order to raise this sum, you have to travel the country and still depend on Washington assistance. To get that assistance you have to raise money for other Senators who are up during the six years in order to get their assistance when you're up. Thus, the beginning of Washington influence on local elections. Tip O'Neill's rule that: "All politics is local," has changed to "most politics is national." The national media and pundits have taken over campaigns.


The 1971 and 1973 Congress limited spending in federal campaigns. The vote was bi-partisan and President Richard Nixon signed both measures into law. The Congressional intent was to prohibit the buying of the office. But the Supreme Court in Buckley vs. Valeo, set aside the '73 Act and now requires candidates for office to veritably buy the seat. The Court limited the freedom of speech with money, amending Madison's first amendment to the Constitution. Now, we have Corzine in New Jersey spending $60 million of his own money to be elected to the United States Senate; Bloomberg spending $109 million to be Mayor of New York, and Meg Whitman spending $118 million in the California Governor's primary and the election is not until November. In Citizens United the Supreme Court now has permitted Corporate America to secretly buy the office. All a corporation has to do is to contribute to a 501(c)(4) group and the State has lost its ability to elect its own Congressman or Senator. Last minute out-of-state money elected Brown to the U. S. Senate in Massachusetts; Miller in the Republican primary in Alaska; O'Connell in the Republican primary in Delaware. In "The Secret Election" The New York Times (9/19/10) editorializes against corporate takeovers: "…the advocacy committees that are sucking in many millions of anonymous corporate dollars, making this the most secretive election cycle since the Watergate years."

Today, Congress spends most of its time on the needs of the campaign with little time for the needs of the country. When I came to the U. S. Senate in 1966, Mansfield, the Majority Leader, had a vote nine o'clock every Monday morning to ascertain a quorum to do business. And on Friday he kept us in until five o'clock in the afternoon. Now Congress spends Mondays and Fridays out of Washington raising money. In Washington on Tuedays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays Senators have fund raisers at breakfast, lunch and dinner. A special week each month is reserved for fund raising, with Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays merged to go to California and New York to fund raise. The Republican or Democratic lunches on Tuesdays are mostly to strategize fund raisers for Senators up for re-election. Thursday's policy lunches are now cancelled so that Senators can go to the party headquarters in the District for two hours to make calls for money.

With committee meetings and floor debates, there is little time left to see constituents, only contributors. Senators of one party seldom work with Senators of the opposite party. It used to be different -- but when Republican Senators on my Commerce Committee had a fund raiser against me in Washington and all except Ted Stevens attended, I had the feeling that, if they wanted to get rid of me, I wanted to get rid of them. This explains the partisanship.

Washington is full of pollster politicians. The first rule of the pollster is: "Never divide the voters. Comment on both sides of an issue and answer you're 'concerned,' you're 'troubled.'" You're taught not to lead -- do nothing, just vote the poll and raise money. The real needs of a country, like a Marshall Plan, are never found in a political poll. This allows the Washington lobbyists with the money to run Congress. For example, Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform obtains a commitment against taxes long before a senator can be elected. Any senator wanting to pay the bill for government is talking to a fixed jury. The cover of a recent issue of Time (7/12/10) headlines: "The Best Laws Money Can Buy. $3.5 billion was spent on lobbyist last year. Why that's the biggest bargain in town." And rather than covering the issues, the media covers the ups and downs of the parties by covering the money. The headline in USA Today (9/24/10) was "Big cash edge for GOP in state bids."

Like a dog chasing its tail, Congress has tried for thirty-five years to control spending in federal elections, only to be thwarted by the Supreme Court intent on equating speech with money. To return to Madison's freedom of speech, Congress needs to pass a Joint Resolution amending the Constitution "to authorize Congress to limit or control spending in federal elections." I proposed such a Joint Resolution, obtaining bi-partisan approval of the majority of the U. S. Senate, but never the two-thirds required to amend the Constitution. Then Phil Gramm made it a partisan issue, telling me: "When you Democrats give up the unions, we'll give up the money." The Republicans were in control my last three years in the Senate, but they would never call a Joint Resolution for consideration for fear of having to vote on the Hollings amendment limiting spending. Shortly after I introduced my amendment, the Governors Conference called asking that money be limited in state elections. My point is that the people would approve such a Joint Resolution in a New York minute. They resent the corruption of money in politics.

After the 1973 enactment, Congress limited Strom Thurmond and me to so much per registered voter or $387,000. Fast forward for increase of population and years of inflation, a South Carolina Senator would be required to raise three or four million dollars for a senatorial campaign -- not ten or twelve million required today. Once the Constitution is amended, Congress can provide limits, public financing, control corporate contributions, or whatever. But the first amendment for freedom of speech would be restored its meaning. Special interests would be limited. Lobbyists would be limited, losing control. National Committees would be limited so that the States' needs could be addressed. The Senator would now have time for the country instead of the campaign. Federalism and the strength of democracy would be restored. The corruption of government would end.

Today, both Republican and Democratic members of Congress act helpless to excise the cancer. Incumbents are at the epicenter of fund raising in Washington, D. C. Every special interest in the world has a lobbyist ready, willing and able to help you if you help them. Your party committee will help you make up any deficit and guide the Senator's fund raising over the next six years. Several offices back in the State will help you develop contributors. With the advantage of overwhelming any opposition financially, you can all but guarantee your re-election. Not the Senator, not the Congressman, but the process is corrupted. The people don't realize how this corruption can be corrected because the press and media are the chief beneficiaries of the money chase. Eighty-five percent of the cost of a campaign goes to the media. The press or media can stop the money chase by pressuring Congress to amend the Constitution to limit spending in elections. The last five of the amendments to the Constitution deal with elections. And restoring the people's privilege to elect their leaders is more important than the five.

Now, this morning's The Washington Post's (9/18/10) headline, "'Super PACs' alter campaign," reads: "A new political weapon known as the 'super PAC' has emerged in recent weeks, allowing independent groups to both raise and spend money at a pace that threatens to eclipse the efforts of political parties." And one might add: "the efforts of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee." Special interests always contributed to the party campaign committees to keep the favor of the party. Senators have always aligned themselves with one party or the other, and there was always cohesion or control by the Majority Leader or Minority Leader. "Super PACs" no longer will tend to give to one party committee or another, but they can act in a tailor-made or singular fashion - only when their special interests are concerned. And they can fix the vote secretly and at the last minute as desired.

This changes "government of the people, by the people, for the people" to become "government of the special interests, by the special interests, for the special interests." I used to think a Constitutional amendment returning to the intent of Congress in '71 and '73 limiting spending in federal elections was the better approach. But now with "super PACs," a Constitutional amendment to limit or control spending is absolutely necessary to return the people's government back to the people. Otherwise, the Golden Rule will pertain: "Those with the gold will rule."

Senator Hollings of South Carolina served 38 years in the United States Senate, and for many years was Chairman of the Commerce, Space, Science & Transportation Committee. He is the author of the recently published book, Making Government Work (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

© 2010, Ernest F. Hollings. All rights reserved. Contact us for republication permission.

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Ernest F. Hollings served the public for 56 years -- 38 years in the United States Senate and as South Carolina's governor, lieutenant governor and a member of the S.C. House of Representatives.

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