Commentary

Why Incumbents Want Campaign Finance Reform

By Eric O'Keefe and Aaron Steelman
August 21, 1997

This fall Congress will take up campaign finance reform —specifically, a bill drafted by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) that would limit any House candidate to $600,000 in campaign spending. Although many critics have argued that this limit violates the First Amendment, few have discussed how it would help incumbents and hamstring challengers.

In 1994 and 1996 only 3 percent of House challengers who spent less than $600,000 won election, but 40 percent who spent over $600,000 were victorious. That suggests two things: challengers must spend a certain amount of money to win, and the Shays-Meehan limits would prevent most of them from winning.

Challengers already face an uphill battle. Thanks to a vast array of taxpayer-funded benefits, each incumbent enters the election hundreds of thousands of dollars ahead of any challenger in real campaign spending. Shays-Meehan would institutionalize that difference by making it impossible for challengers to offset the countless perks that incumbents enjoy.

Taxpayer-funded mail. Members of Congress can send nearly 1 million pieces of “franked” mail a year at the taxpayers’ expense. It is not surprising that in 1994, 63 percent of voters received mail from incumbents but only 25 percent heard from challengers.

Taxpayer-funded recording studios. Congress has developed facilities for preparing audiotapes and films that are available to members free of charge. Needless to say, challengers have no access to those facilities. This benefit has widened the gap between voters’ exposure to incumbents and their exposure to challengers. In 1994, 61 percent of voters reported seeing the incumbent on television; only 34 percent said they had seen the challenger.

Taxpayer-funded Web sites. Members of Congress have used their unlimited access to the Internet to develop Web sites that contain a vast array of information, including position papers, bills that Members have sponsored, and biographical information. In 1996 CompuServe decided to level the playing field a bit by offering free sites to incumbents and challengers alike, but the Federal Election Commission prevented it, stating in a letter to CompuServe, “The Commission still concludes that your proposed gift to Federal candidates of valuable services which enable them to communicate with voters and advocate their candidacies would constitute in-kind contributions to those candidates and would be prohibited.”

Taxpayer-funded constituent service. As the federal bureaucracy becomes larger, citizens must routinely ask their representatives for help in navigating the vast maze of federal regulations. Members of Congress are happy to provide such constituent service, since they know they will be rewarded at the polls. Indeed, in a recent survey of senior congressional staffers, 56 percent said that effective constituent service is the most important factor in boosting a legislator’s political support. In contrast, the member’s legislative record was cited by only 11 percent of respondents. Perhaps more telling, an American National Election Study found that, of voters who contacted their representative for constituent service and reported being “very satisfied,” 64.7 percent voted for the incumbent. Only 3 percent voted for the challenger, and 32.3 percent did not vote.

Taxpayer-funded personal staff. In 1957 the total number of personal House staffers was 2,441. By 1993 that figure had more than tripled to 7,400. Staffers regularly “volunteer” for their bosses’ reelection campaigns.

Taxpayer-funded district offices. In 1964 only 4 percent of members of Congress listed more than one district office. Today multiple offices are the rule and many members employ additional “temporary” district offices that are set up as booths at county fairs and outside sporting events.

Taxpayer-funded travel. In 1977 members were “limited” to 33 paid trips to their districts yearly. Since 1978, however, travel expenses have come out of each member’s personal expense account. Not surprisingly, many members now visit their districts every weekend on campaign-style junkets.

In 1996 the reelection rate for the Members of the House of Representatives exceeded 94 percent, largely because of the factors mentioned above and other benefits of incumbency such as pork-barrel spending. Campaign spending limits would outlaw adequate funding for the rare challenger who might pose a credible threat to a sitting legislator. In the business world, that would be called using government to crush competition. In today’s Congress, it’s called “reform.”

Eric O’Keefe and Aaron Steelman are the authors of “The End of Representation: How Congress Stifles Electoral Competition,” just published by the Cato Institute.