Breaking gridlock

By ERNEST F. HOLLINGS, former U. S. senator


OCT. 20, 2014 -- Years ago there was a little limerick: "All the way through life make this your goal, keep your eye on the doughnut, and not the hole." When it comes to the cancer of money in politics, Congress focuses on the hole Citizens United wherein the Supreme Court sanctioned unlimited spending in elections and not the doughnut Buckley v. Valeo wherein the Court equated speech with spending.

People talk politics from day to day, and we have free political speech. As a candidate for the State Legislature in 1948, I politicked Main Street, fire stations, court houses, and we debated in sections of the county. That was free political speech. Today fundraising has taken over with spending for a headquarters, polls, a driver, a poster, yard signs, billboards, consultants, etc. Walk into a TV station, and tell the manager you want your "free political speech." You'll soon find yourself out on the sidewalk. Under the 1973 law, Strom and I were limited to so much per registered voter - about $687,000. To be elected my seventh time to the U.S. Senate in 1998, I raised and spent $8.5 million. Today a candidate has not only to run for office, but buy it. Even though the Supreme Court justices couldn't tell the difference between "free political speech" and "spending," any normal person can.

For thirty years, Congress has tried to correct Buckley, with McCain-Feingold, public financing, and even a Constitutional amendment. On April 21, 1988, we obtained a majority vote in the U.S. Senate for a Constitutional amendment to limit spending in elections, but not the 2/3 vote required for a Joint Resolution. The Governors Conference called me and asked that the states be included, which I included in my 1988 amendment. States would ratify an amendment in a "New York minute." Leader Harry Reid (9/11/14) obtained a vote of 54 to 42 for a Constitutional amendment limiting spending, but not the 2/3 required. A simple amendment: "Congress is empowered to limit or control spending in federal and state elections," corrects the Buckley decision, permits Congress to limit spending, and breaks the gridlock.

It pays to make friends in a legislative body. You never know when you will need a vote from someone you don't care for. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1966, six Republicans and six Democrat senators met every Wednesday night at a member's home, ties off, drinks, and "giving each other hell." We became close friends. I never had better friends in the Senate than Republicans Bill Saxby of Ohio, John Cooper of Kentucky, and Ted Stevens of Alaska. We limited spending by a bipartisan vote in 1971, 1973, and President Nixon signed the laws.

When the Supreme Court in Buckley set aside the law, senators started raising money against each other. The Republican and Democrat Senatorial Campaign Committees took over the fundraising. Partisanship set in. Then Senator Mitch McConnell filibustered every Democrat initiative, so the Democrats couldn't get a vote; and Leader Harry Reid filled every initiative called for consideration with amendments, so Republicans couldn't get a vote. Gridlock!

Located in Washington with 10,000 lobbyists, Congress fundraises morning, noon, and night. Lobbyists tell the Leader when to call a vote and have taken control of Congress. Consequently, you can't get a vote on gun control, immigration, etc. Voting gets you into trouble, so senators avoid votes. And senators enjoy gridlock.

George Will in an online video for Prager University (10/6/14) opposes voting on campaign finance reform and states: "…all laws regulating campaigns will favor the reelection of incumbents." Not so. When senators thought of the country, not themselves, they limited spending in elections in 1971, 1973, 1998, and 2014. This did not favor their reelection. With an office in Washington amidst the lobbyists, a limit on spending takes away the member's advantage of fundraising morning, noon, and night. A senator has six years to fundraise not just for himself, but the campaign committee, which will contribute to his or her reelection.

A Constitutional amendment empowering Congress to limit spending in elections is the key to breaking gridlock. When you limit spending, you limit the fundraising against each other. You limit the partisanship. You return control of government from the lobbyists to Congress. Congress has time to see constituents, debate, and vote. Congress gets back to "wheeling and dealing" with each other.

Senator Fritz 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 Making Government Work (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

© 2014, Ernest F. Hollings. All rights reserved. Contact us for republication permission.

About Fritz Hollings

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.

Today, Hollings continues to be influential in public affairs and offers this website as a compendium of current and past positions on public issues. Learn more about Fritz Hollings.


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