Anthony Trollope, visiting the United States during the Civil War, described New York's Fifth Avenue in terms that his modern counterpart would undoubtedly apply to Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue.
"I have never walked down Fifth Avenue alone," he marveled, "without thinking of money. I have never walked there with a companion without talking of it. I fancy that every man there, in order to maintain the spirit of the place, should bear on his forehead a label stating how many dollars he is worth, and that every label should be expected to assert a falsehood."
That animating spirit, still flourishing in New York, has extended its ferocious grip southward--most particularly to Capitol Hill, where the power of wealth has (with honorable exceptions) achieved dominion over the legislative process and, hence, the conduct of democratic government. Indeed, it has cast a cloud on the right of a legislature to be called democratic when its principal function, as expressed in its actions, has become to protect and enhance the fortunes of the large and powerful at the expense of working Americans.
The principal instrument of this dominion is the political-action committee, or PAC, which collects money from its members and gives it to the constitutional guardians of the public trust--members of Congress and aspirants to Congress.
Most of these committees belong to economic interests that have an important stake in the actions of government--insurance companies, real-estate developers, chemical and drug companies, for example. In less than a decade they have become the single most important force in the contest for federal office. In the 1983-84 election cycle alone, the special-interest PACs contributed $113 million. In general their criterion was not ideological but pragmatic. Incumbents received about three-fourths of this money. And House Democrats, as a group, got the single largest chunk, proving again that the dollar has no party and the checkbook is without loyalties.
PAC money is neither a "gift" nor a "contribution." It is an investment. The PACs expect recipients to give careful, and usually favorable, consideration to legislation that affects their economic well-being. Being experienced investors, they generally get what they expect. The past few weeks have offered us some particularly entertaining and outrageous examples.
The impulse toward tax reform has been perverted into a voluminous and intricate modification of the tax structure that will, when the lawyers have finished their work, leave the wealthy secure in their loopholes, special exemptions and shelters.
Congress is passing a law to abdicate its constitutional responsibility for the national budget to a President who, we can be sure, will make sure that the burden of reducing the deficit does not weigh too heavily on wealthy individuals or powerful corporations. The passage of this anti-constitutional act is another stunning illustration of the wisdom of PAC investment in Democrats.
Finally, a bill to limit PAC contributions was itself debated, amended, mangled, twisted and, inevitably, put to rest.
No one in Washington doubts that PACs have corrupted the political process. In 1982 the PAC coordinator for the White House told a journalist, "I think the story of this off-year election is that we marshaled our resources and bought one or two Senate seats and 15 to 20 House seats, and that's really good." Damn right it is! More recently, in 1985, more than $10 million went to the members of the congressional tax-writing committees to make sure that the tax burden would not be transferred from the middle class to the wealthy. And it wasn't.
The meaning of the PACs is clear. Congress is not influenced by special interests. Congress does not represent special interests. Congress is owned by special interests. Morally the system is bribery. It is not criminal only because those who make the laws are themselves accomplices. Government is for sale. But the bids are sealed, and the prices are very high.
There is an easy way out: Eliminate PACs. We should place a rigorous ceiling on all congressional campaigns, allocate public funds to finance campaigns and require television stations--the most costly component of modern political campaigns --to give a specified amount of air time to candidates.
It will be argued that any form of public financing or spending limits is of benefit to incumbents. The fact is that it is always an advantage to be an incumbent. It is impossible to know whether changes will add to this advantage. It is clear, however, that the present system of PAC financing is heavily weighted toward those in office. Of the $113 million spent by PACs in the last election, only $18 million went to challengers.
Our national legislative process has become corrupt. The money power is becoming the congressional power. This fact is readily acknowledged, in private, even by those who are struggling to restore integrity and principle to democratic government. It has been a losing battle. And we, the governed, whose consent is no longer asked or needed, are the losers.