Catering for the rising cost of US democracy

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The Independent Online
LAST NIGHT, three thousand five hundred people sat down to one of the most expensive dinners in history. The meal was to raise cash for the Republican party and was expected to bring in $10.5m, one of the largest fundraisers ever.

Attendance required a minimum cash commitment of$15,000 a table for individuals and political action committees, or $20,000 for corporations. Some groups were contributing up to $100,000 for the pleasure of dinner with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Leader Trent Lott.

With five months to go until polling day, it looks as if this will be the most expensive Congressional election the United States has ever seen. Vast sums are being ploughed into the campaign by both sides as the cost of American democracy spirals upwards.

According to the Centre for Responsive Politics (CRP), a bipartisan think- tank, candidates for this years' elections had raised $331m (pounds 200m) in the 15 months to the end of March, 10 per cent up on the same period before the last elections. The cost of a Congressional contest doubled between 1976 and 1992, according to a report by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE), and has shot up since then.

The main reason for the vast, growing appetite for cash is simple: television. Media spending nearly tripled from the Seventies to the Nineties, as candidates spent more and more of their cash on 30-second advertising spots. "There's a momentum under way that's unstoppable," says the CRP's Director, Larry Makinson.

More than $2bn was spent in 1996 in elections for the Presidency, House and Senate, the CRP concluded in a detailed study of the last elections. It cost nearly $700,000 to win a seat in the House of Representatives, and nearly $5m to get into the Senate. Both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole spent more than $100m each in the race for the White House. Finding and tapping the key sources of cash to keep the money machines turning has become the key campaign function.

Millions of Americans give sums of less than $200 to politicians or parties. Donations of this size aren't identified by the Federal Election Commission, because they are regarded as individually insignificant: these are the little people. You don't buy a bedroom at the White House for two hundred bucks. But some 630,000 gave larger sums, and 235,000 people gave more than $1,000.

This last group is particularly important: its contributions amounted to one-quarter of all the cash donated to candidates and political parties. "These are the donors whose names are on the candidates' Rolodexes," says the CRP. "These are the ones in attendance when the President, the Speaker ... or other top political dignitaries travel around the country doing fundraisers."

Then there is the mystically titled "soft money". Most individual donations to candidates in federal elections count as "hard money" - subject to campaign finance limits. The wobblier sort, often from companies or unions, is subject to no limits, but is supposed to be used only to support state and local candidates, or party activities. Some chance. Soft money totalled $262m in 1996. There have been frequent attempts to limit soft money, but so far to no avail.

Tens of millions are also spent on so-called "issue advocacy" advertisements, which are superficially about an issue but often focus on the merits or demerits of a particular candidate. Again, this money is unregulated.

The campaign finance system is skewed permanently to the right. A survey of more than 1,000 individual donors by Clyde Wilcox of Georgetown University showed they were overwhelmingly white (95 per cent), male (81 per cent), over 45 (87 per cent), rich (46 per cent with incomes of more than $250,000), and conservative (51 per cent).

In other words, US politics is dominated by a wealthy community equivalent in size to a medium-sized town, and a pretty right wing one at that.

The biggest source of funding by far amongst groups or organisations is the business community. Nearly two-thirds of business cash goes, unsurprisingly, to the Republicans. The financial sector leads the pack, with lawyers and lobbyists not far behind.

The Political Action Committees, groups which bundle together contributions in the name of an issue or interest, spread their money between the parties, but tend to back incumbent politicians - hardly a radical force for change. They want to buy influence, and there's no point in giving to outsiders.

None of this is good for American democracy. The Congressional agenda is shaped by the individuals and corporations with the biggest bank balances, and the need to stroke them as elections come around.

Politics has become increasingly a sport for the rich, with candidates themselves ponying up $161m in 1996. Because of the vast appetite for cash, candidates devote increasing amounts of their time to chasing donors rather than voters.

"If more than 50 per cent of the campaign budget goes to media and an average of 30 per cent goes to fundraising and the rest goes to candidate travel and staff," says Curtis Gans of the CSAE, "there is nothing left for any activities involving people."

Unless, of course, those people are wearing tuxedos and packing Mont Blanc pens to sign a personal cheque at the end of the evening.