Inside the Money Chase
by DAN HAMBURG
The Nation, May 5, 1997
They say the best things in life are free,
But you can keep it for the birds and bees.
I want money! That's what I want!
My wife and I have a favorite saying: "It's not the money." To me, getting money to make my first run for Congress in 1992 was simply something I needed to do to win. I certainly never intended to become the least bit impressed with it or driven by it. After getting elected, I was sure I could be a free-swinging, free-wheeling progressive. Joining with what I believed would be legions of my kind in the new Congress and a Democratic administration, we would begin to put the country right.
When I ran for Congress, I had never raised more than $15,000 for a political race. But I knew that congressional seats didn't come cheap. I contacted an old supporter, Bonnie Raitt, and asked her to help me raise money for my campaign. To my elation, she said yes and I was off and running.
Bonnie, along with Holly Near, did several concerts for me in early 1992, raising a total of about $60,000. It turned out, incredibly, that no one challenged me in the spring primary. I remember thinking that the money would now "flow like wine." It was exciting. I had already caught money fever. By June, I was broke, my campaign management team having taken virtually all the money for their salaries and ancillary expenses. My Sacramento-based campaign manager put it this way, "As candidate, you have two jobs: carry the message and raise money." It was time to raise more. I was learning my job.
I raised another $800,000 or so for the general. Bonnie helped raise another chunk with a blockbuster concert with Jackson Browne on the driving range of a Napa country club golf course. Where did the rest of the money come from? Environment. Labor. Women. Peace and justice organizations. That was my mantra whenever anybody asked me where the money was coming from. I said it with pride as if cool people got cool money and everything was cool.
Pretty quickly I lost track of where much of the money was coming from. I was far too busy trying to cover the sprawling 7-county district and to raise the money needed to keep an ever-expanding "campaign team" in place. Some money came from wealthy individuals who were known to me simply as "major donors," some from the state and national parties, some from Democratic incumbents who just wanted to make sure that the party continued to hold the majority in the House. About one-third of the roughly $900,000 raised for the 1992 campaign came from PACs. At one point, at the urging of Democratic Congressman Bill Brewster, I found myself talking to the NRA about giving me money because my opponent had voted to restrict sales of automatic weapons. Finally, they offered me no money, but agreed not to fund my opponent either.
By the time I won the election in November of 1992, the campaign was in debt about $80,000 and I was personally in debt another $40,000. But hell, I'd raised nearly a million and now I was the incumbent so no sweat! It took nearly all of 1993 to clear my '92 campaign expenses. It turned out that in off-years (years in which there is not a House election) much of the fund-raising had to be done at in-district events in which supporters pay and gather around to hear from the celebrity/politician expound on the political wars in DC.
In September of 1993, I went to see the president and vice-president at the White House. This was a small meeting, with about eight members of Congress, Clinton and Gore, Stephanopoulos and Gergen. The day before I had been at the annual picnic of the Operating Engineers, a union that "maxed out" to me ($5,000 each for primary and general elections). At the picnic, several of the union leaders had gone over a problem they were having--getting the go-ahead for a freeway widening project in the district. I said I'd do what I could. The next day, there I was at the White House arguing for more money for "infrastructure," including of course, the project that the Engineers were pushing.
This is the kind of thing members of Congress do routinely. After all, this is how the system is supposed to work. The member goes out into the district, talks to his constituents, finds out what they need, and then fights to get it, especially if it's for a group that is good for $10,000 the next time election season comes around. I knew lots of reasons why that widening project was a bad idea, at best unnecessary. In fact, I had voted against it as a county official several times. But it wasn't hard to conjure up reasons to be for it either; primarily jobs and campaign money.
Once, when I complained to my administrative assistant (and '92 campaign fundraising director) about how much time it was taking, and how demeaned I felt in constantly sticking my hand out for money, her response was, "If you congressmen didn't have to grovel for money, your heads would be even fatter." I really thought about that. Is fund-raising some kind of leveling device, forcing the pol to go to the people? I concluded that if it is, the leveling needs to happen in other ways. There's nothing inherently character-building or constituent-serving about having to call people on the phone again and again to get them to cut you a check or come to a fund-raiser at $250, $500 or $1000 a ticket, stand around in some tastefully remodeled Victorian on the Hill and eat hors d'ouvres and drink wine with people with whom your connection is a check.
A "successful politician" is a politician with a healthy bankroll. Behavior that we might think of as degrading to the profession or "detrimental to democracy" are to the politician both legitimate and necessary. All the rewards come with raising tons of money--pundits laud your "prolific fundraising," colleagues have confidence in your viability (i.e., re-electability), staff members need not fear for their jobs.
Most large individual donations come from wealthy businesspersons. Campaign rules disallow corporate giving to individual candidates. So unless they give through a PAC, individuals must write non-tax-deductible personal checks for which they expect a service. For example, the congressional district I represented has lots of wineries. Wealthy vintners routinely give large checks to candidates, often to candidates from both parties. When the Clinton administration considered raising taxes on alcohol to help cut the deficit in 1993, the wine and beer industries screamed bloody murder. Raise taxes on the sustenance of Joe and Jane Sixpack? Blasphemy! Raise taxes on the nectar of yuppiedom? Quel horror! Besides, it would cost jobs and tarnish one of the few bright spots in US trade.
Members of Congress who represent competitive districts spend hours each week, and during campaign season hours each day, making fund-raising calls from private offices on Capitol Hill. "Making your calls" is a basic responsibility of the job. But the problem doesn't end there. Despite all the whitewash, the fact is that campaign funds are routinely solicited from federal offices.
When I entered Congress, I was advised that while it was illegal to make fund-raising calls from my congressional office, it was legal to accept return calls. Of course, even this phony line is frequently crossed. Politicians as seemingly at-odds as Phil Gramm and Al Gore have claimed that it's OK to use Senate and even White House offices to make fund-raising calls so long as they used their own, or their campaign committee, credit cards. Gore came up with yet another angle when he claimed that it's OK to make such calls from official quarters so long as the call's recipient was not receiving the call on federal property. The relevant point here is, of course, that public officials should not be soliciting funds from offices owned by the taxpayers.
California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh once said, "If you can't take their money and then vote against them, you should get out of politics!" Unruh was no ingenue, but that comment seems ridiculously naive now. For one thing, money shapes what even makes it to the floor for a vote. Proposals that are perceived by the moneyed interests as truly threatening, such as single-payer health insurance, are quickly squelched by committee chairs fattened up by industry. Sure the Progressive Caucus gets a few hours once a year to argue for a budget that would slash military spending but it's a very pro forma exercise. Progressives may take a nick out of the system once in awhile, pass an amendment to build three Trident subs instead of four, but that's about it. Money buys power. Why else would it be that only the poor are getting kicked off the government dole?
On a less grand level, here's how it works. A company, say United Parcel Service, has problems with an arcane section of a bill coming before your committee dealing with air transit fees. You know there may be some opposition to the bill by the Teamsters, but they haven't pressed their case. The UPS lobbyist meets you at the door of your office as you're returning from the floor (lobbyists have an uncanny knack for finding members and waylaying them). He states his case. He's a nice guy, he sounds authoritative on the subject. You're inclined to say "Fine, I'll be glad to support your position" or at least "I can't say how I'll vote but I think what you say has a lot of merit." The fact that this person has handed you two checks for $5,000 over the past months certainly helps seal the deal. The vast majority of your constituents will never know what has happened; the consequences will be well-hidden.
The most "successful politicians" are not only able to fund their own re-election campaigns and intimidate potential opponents, they establish their own PACs to give money to other members. This is another way, besides the seniority system, that established politicians influence less-established politicians. It is also another way that money controls politics. Several times I went to the floor of the House to seek out members, whose names I would have typed on an index card, who were known to have money to hand out. These members might be ideological allies, or simply members who have ambitions to move up through the system and are looking to create support by handing out $1000 checks.
It was no secret in the House that Charlie Rose (D-NC) intended to challenge Dick Gephardt for Democratic majority leader. His plan was to run against Gephardt during the party organizational period just before the 104th Congress commenced. I had an important bill before one of Rose's subcommittees so felt the need to have him as a friend. After all, he could kill my bill on a whim anytime he desired. Instead, Charlie took me under his wing and helped guide my bill toward passage. He also gave me $1000 from his personal PAC to help me in an unexpected primary I faced in the spring of '94, a race in which my challenger was to spend nearly $250,000.
The next time I asked Charlie for money it was for the November general election. In the meantime, I had decided to support Gephardt to continue as majority leader, mostly because of his strong stance opposing NAFTA and his generally more liberal politics. I also knew that I was facing another million dollar race. When I approached Charlie for money, his response was "Son, you better get on over with your friend Gephardt. You won't see any more money coming from me." I felt so awkward and silly. Here I was a grown man, a congressman, getting blown off for a lousy $1000.
The issue of campaign finance points to a deeper problem in American politics: the subservience of the political system to the economic system. The real government of our country is economic, dominated by large corporations that charter the state to do their bidding. Fostering a secure environment in which corporations and their investors can flourish is the paramount objective of both parties. Campaign finance works to place and keep in office those who willingly reproduce this culture. The is because the covenant between the citizen and the law, as recapitulated through the electoral process, has lost its meaning. Campaign finance is a useful way of looking into a larger question: In an era of increasing economic globalism, where the state itself is fast becoming a subordinate entity, what is the relevance of being an American citizen?
Dan Hamburg is executive director of VOTE Action Committee, a San Francisco-based foundation whose mission is to help create a progressive electoral alternative. He is a registered Green.