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Campaign financing: the 'good news' is all wrong.

We still want to believe the promise Madison made in the heat of the 1787-88 campaign for ratification of the federal Constitution. We are eager for evidence that voters retain some control over their elected representatives, that the political action committees don't call all the shots on Capitol Hill.

the press is not immune to this hopeful attitude. In May, the "Federal Triangle" report in The Washington Post led with this optimistic item:

"Senate and House candidates spen $374 million during the 1983-84 election cycle, a 9.3 percent jump over the previous election but considerably less of an increase than in the past, the Federal Election Commission reported yesterday." (Emphasis added.)

The brief article that followed clearly implied that the influence of money in Congressional elections is lessening, or at least the advantages of being wealthy or being sponsored by well-heeled interest groups are growing at a slower rate.

The sad fact is, however, that money was more important than ever before in '84.

Federal electrion officials and most of the press emphasized the wrong numbers in analyzing the last election. The only reduction in money in politics was a drop in the amounts challengers were able to raise. The amounts winners raised and spent shot up, meaning that it cost a lot more to get elected. Incumbents in particular relied on vastly increased campaign chests, with a much higher proportion of that money coming from PACs. Far from receding, the special interests have simply gotten more efficient in targeting candidates they wish to have stay in office.

What the FEC emphasized-and the Post amplified--about the '84 election was that total spending by all candidates fro the House of Representatives dropped by 0.2 percent, while total spending by all Senate candidates rose by 23.1 percent, resulting in an overall spending increase of "only" 9.3 percent over 1982. "By comparison," the Post reported, "[total] spending jumped 43 percent from 1980 to 1982 and 23 percent from 1978 to 1980."

But the problem is that it doesn't matter much what it costs to lose a Congressional campaign. What matters is how much it takes to win. That sets the price of admission and indicates how much leverage can be gained by the groups that have money to give away.

On average, senators elected in 1984 raised more than $3 million, 41 percent more than in 1982. But unlike the House, where all 435 seats are up for grabs every two years, different states had Senate races in 1984 from those in 1982. Compared with 1978, the last year in which the same states had Senate elections, the 1984 increase is a whopping 150 percent. Even adjusted for inflation, the cost of a Senate seat has risen more than two-thirds in a single term.

The average amount raised by winners on the House side rose to more than $334,000 in 1984, up 17 percent since 1982 and 126 percent since 1978.

These numbers have real implications. Consider the campaign of George Hochbrueckner.

A 10-year Democratic state assemblyman from Long Island, Hochbrueckner argues that with more money, he could have unseated three-term Rep. William Carney, the arch-conservative Republican from New York's first district. Hochbrueckner appars to have a point.

"I ran a gangbusters campaign," says the loser, but he raised "only" $200,000 (a sum that would have been considered a fortune not too long ago). In a district that gave President Reagan 67 percent of the vote, Hochbrueckner pulled down 47 percent.

"Money made the difference; there's no question about it," Hochbrueckner says. "You're only talking about a small percentage of the vote." The incumbent, Carney, outspent him by nearly two-to-one to retain a seat that had been held by Democrat Otis Pike for 18 years until Pike's retirement in 1978.

"There are things we weren't able to do," Hochbrueckner recalls. "We had polls showing that we were ahead... One of Carney's strategies was to misquote and misrepresent my record. He spent a lot of money on radio and on direct mail accusations. I didn't have the money to counter his attacks."

Carney's office denies making false charges, but the dispute is almost irrelevant. It's fairly common in trailing campaigns to come out with late charges against an opponent and hope they cannot be readily refuted. If the accused has relatively little money to buy air time, this strategy is especially effective. In the adjacent third district in 1980, incumbent Democrat Jerome Ambro was defeated by an opponent who charged that Ambro didn't pay Social Security taxes. The charge was true; members of Congress are required to pay into the federal Congressional retirement fund rather than Social Security. But Ambro was outspent nine-to-one and couldn't afford to respond to the accusation in time.

Hockbrueckner wasn't alone in 1984. Across the country, the concentration of money on certain candidates, often incumbents, had a huge timpact. Only 16 of the 408 House incumbents and three of the 29 Senate incumbents seeking reelection were defeated.

If all of the money needed to win a seat in Congress actually came from voters in the candidates' home districts the trend toward vastly increased spending would seem less threatening. In fact, a huge portion of winners' campaigan funds come from PACs serving interests such as the oil industry and labor unions. Most House incumbent winners--207 out of 392--raised more than half of what they spent on their 1984 campaigns from PACs. The average Congressional incumbent raised 62 percent of his campaign costs from PACs.

George Hochbrueckner of Long Island has learned his lesson from 1984. "I'll beat Bill Carney in 1986," says Hockbrueckner. But rather than appeal to the people of the first district to overwhelm the influence of money and send their own man to Congress, Hockbrueckner will follow his opponent's example. "I suspect that next time he'll probably start his fundraising earlier and raise more than $500,000," says Hockbrueckner. "But raising money will be easier to me now. All I have to do is go to Washington and say, 'Look, I came within three percentage points last time despite Reagan's sweep."' Hockbrueckner observed that "Now, having made an impression," he will have a greater appeal to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and "all of the appropriate political action committees."
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Author:Roeder, Edward
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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