Commentary

Republicans and Democrats Are in It for the Money, the Power, the Prestige

The hot new restaurant in Washington is the Caucus Room. Picture lobbyists and lawmakers sipping wine from oversized glasses and relishing tender filets. Trés chic.

It’s no surprise that two of the major investors in the Caucus Room sit on opposite sides of the political fence. Tommy Boggs is the son of the former Democratic House majority leader and a principal in the powerful Democratic law and lobbying firm Patton & Boggs. Haley Barbour is the former head of the Republican National Committee and a top dog at the Republican lobbying powerhouse of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers. Their restaurant deal sheds light on how the political class operates in the nation’s capital: Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter. It’s about money and power and keeping it that way.

Boggs and Barbour aren’t enemies, they’re pals. In fact, most everybody gets along well in Washington politics, at least when the cameras aren’t rolling. The partisan shouting matches on Capitol Hill? They’re for the rubes outside the Beltway. Got to keep those contributions rolling into the RNC and the DNC.

But ideas? Real philosophical differences?

No. It’s theater. That’s why Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott feigned frustration when the GOP Congress couldn’t work out a deal with the Democratic White House over a difference of “only $30 billion in a $2 trillion budget.”

We don’t have a Republican Party and a Democratic Party. We have an Incumbent Party. The political system in Washington, particularly in the House, is rigged. The percentage of incumbents who won re-election last fall was a stunning 98 percent. Only a handful of races are competitive. Yet outside the Beltway people want the government off their backs. That’s why more than two-thirds of Americans back Social Security privatization. It’s why a recent Gallup Poll showed the following: When asked which posed the greatest threat to the future of the country, 7 percent said big labor, 22 percent said big business, and 65 percent said big government.

If you want to see common sense manifested in Congress, then competitive House races must occur. The best way to do that is to repeal the $1,000 limit on contributions to federal candidates. Nothing disturbs an incumbent more than a well-funded challenger. To an incumbent, the ideal contribution limit is zero; the less money in the campaign, the better his chances.

It’s no coincidence that sky-high re-election rates jumped when the Supreme Court ignored the First Amendment and upheld the contribution limits contained in the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act amendments. The effect of contribution limits is spending limits, and the effect of spending limits is the stifling of political opposition. We are told that the political system is awash in “obscene” amounts of money. Last year we saw $3 billion spent on federal races. A lot? Not really. Considering the $2 trillion federal budget, it’s pocket change — a mere $15 per eligible voter. And if you consider money as a proxy for information, there’s a strong case that voters need more spent on campaigns. A 1996 survey by The Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University found that two-thirds of those interviewed could not name their representative. Three out of four didn’t know that a senator is elected to a six-year term.

Of course, the conceit is that political spending is not about disseminating information but about bribing politicians. I asked a Senate committee chaired by Phil Gramm, R-Texas, if someone could name a politician in Congress who was on the take. After all, if this corruption is so endemic that our First Amendment liberties should be suspended, names should be named. But names are never named in this sham crusade.

Two groups benefit by keeping money out of politics: the Incumbent Party and the media. Journalists become the chief gatekeepers of information when private contributions are restricted. It is not for nothing that Washington pols and scribblers are the biggest cheerleaders for so-called campaign finance reform. They’re probably raising their glasses to the idea right now. At the Caucus Room.

Ed Crane is president and CEO of the Cato Institute, a nonpartisan public policy research organization in Washington, D.C.