Friday, March 24, 2006

Needing the Cash To Keep On Needing the Cash

Ernest (Fritz) Hollings is the former Democratic Senator from South Carolina and he knows from the practical experience of being there, the pressures on a Senator or Representative to stay in the game.


Staying in the game is a euphemism for getting re-elected. Hollings got elected in ’68 and kept getting re-elected until ’98, retiring in ’04, so I guess he should know something about the process.


SenhollingsFritz was a controversial guy. You can’t spend almost 40 years in the Senate and not have people love and hate you in second-helping quantities. I hope not to get derailed on other issues. Fritz wrote an editorial on campaign money and how the need to keep ever bigger numbers coming in, just to hang on to a Senate seat, is handcuffing legislators. Turning them into beggars on the street, according to Hollings and keeping them out of their Senate offices, where they’re supposed to be doing the nation’s business.


That dovetails nicely with other evidence that suggests the modern-day Congress is actually spending about a day and a half a week at what should be a five-day-a-week job. Which fits neatly into our headlong rush to our first billion-dollar presidency. Which fits . . .


It’s all about money.


Hollings claims our present-day troubles started in ’68, when Maurice Stans was collecting money for Dick Nixon. Millions raised, most of it cash that couldn't be traced. On the basis of ‘government for sale,’ Congress came up with legislation outlawing cash donations in federal elections. Hollings could spend $637,000 on the South Carolina race and not a penny more. By those limits today, Hollings says a South Carolina Senate race would cost $3 million.


But we don’t have those limits today. The Supreme Court threw them out. Claiming free speech violations, the Court gave us the most expensive speech on the face of the planet.


Hollings continues, (italics are mine)

“So in 1998 I had to raise $8.5 million to be elected senator. This meant I had to collect $30,000 a week, each and every week, for six years. I could have raised $3 million in South Carolina. But to get $8.5 million I had to travel to New York, Boston, Chicago, Florida, California, Texas and elsewhere. During every break Congress took, I had to be out hustling money. And when I was in Washington, or back home, my mind was still on money.”

We don’t get guys like Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay corrupting our democratic process because Senators and Representatives are crooks. We get guys like that and the destruction of representative government because our courts can’t tell the difference between free speech and speech to the highest bidder.

Speech to the highest bidder is the most restrictive speech the human mind could devise.


Congress can tinker all it wants with the mechanism of funding, but it won’t make a tinker’s damn worth of difference until the Court revisits the issue of free speech.


Hollings again, (italics are mine again as well)

“When I came to the Senate in 1966, we invariably would have a vote scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday to be sure that we started the week at work. And the Senate regularly was voting Friday afternoon. Now you can't find the Senate until Monday evening, and it's gone again by Thursday night. We're off raising money. We use every excuse for a "break" to do so. In February it used to be one day for Washington's birthday and one for Lincoln's. Now we've combined them so we can take a week off to raise money. There's Easter week, Memorial Day week, Fourth of July week and the whole month of August. There's Columbus Day week, Thanksgiving week and the year-end holidays. While in town, we hold breakfast fundraisers, lunch fundraisers, and caucuses to raise funds. The late senator Richard Russell of Georgia said a senator was given a six-year term -- two years to be a statesman, two to be a politician and two to demagogue. Now we take all six years to raise money.


“There is no time to rest or take it easy. Chairmen and ranking minority-party members of committees are charged with raising $100,000 for their party campaign committees. Regular members must raise $50,000, and senators are expected to attend each other's fundraisers, as well as party fundraisers outside Washington. Political parties now raise money for senators, exacerbating the politics and the standoff in the Senate. You don't feel like talking to a senator when he was at a fundraiser against you the previous evening.”

I don’t think we have dishonest politicians at any greater rate than we have dishonest businessmen or college presidents. But I think we have cast them into the unwilling servitude of money-grubbing their livings. We did it with the best of intentions. Best intentions often give us unexpected consequences and, this time, they’re not only foolish, they’re dangerous.


We’re running representative government on money, and that’s the most dangerous fuel in the world.
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