‘New Votuhs’

The Best Congress Money Can Buy

by Philip M. Stern
Pantheon, 321 pp., $18.95

Why Americans Don't Vote

by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward
Pantheon, 325 pp., $19.95

Whose Votes Count?: Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights

by Abigail M. Thernstrom
Harvard University Press, 316 pp., $25.00

Character: America's Search for Leadership

by Gail Sheehy
Morrow, 303 pp., $17.95

Jesse Jackson
Jesse Jackson; drawing by David Levine

To those who complain that our electoral campaigns are too long, a cynic might respond, “It doesn’t matter how long they are—no one is listening.” A deeper cynic could add that it would not matter even if people were listening. One is tempted toward the latter position after reading Philip Stern’s grim book, The Best Congress Money Can Buy. He proves that, no matter how long and draining is the quest for votes, the wooing of money is even more prolonged and intense for politicians. An office holder has some (though less and less) surcease from electioneering; but fund-raising is a constant. The only way for a member of Congress not to be running a debt from the last campaign is to be building a fund for the next one.

Stern points out that “the average United States senator must raise nearly $10,000 a week every week during his or her entire six-year Senate term.” And things are worse than that average makes them sound. The money does not flow in according to its recipients’ needs or with any hydraulic principle of equitable distribution. What the donors, especially the PAC managers, are buying is not elections but influence. Much of their money goes, therefore, to sure winners with influential posts. Safe incumbents are happy to take such cash—it is, after all, one of the things that define their seats as safe and deter challengers. Besides, a reserve cash supply allows one to help others, throw one’s weight around, and even leave office with a residue for personal use. This bankrolling of influence does not make it any easier for purer, because poorer, candidates to take on the people so hedged with cash. It just makes them more desperate for the kind of money necessary to challenge the redundantly financed. Since challenger money is even harder to come by, getting it takes more time, though it comes in smaller amounts.

Raising money is necessary to the electoral system, though often at odds with its rationale, inhibiting the voters’ range of choice by the prior operation of money, much of it from outside the candidate’s own district—“anonymous” money that was donated not to any specific candidate, but for use by its managers in any way that will increase their hold on crucial elements within the Congress. The pervasiveness of this system, and its practical operation in changed votes, is told in detail by Stern, who also includes a table on the sources of income for every member in Congress.

Though Stern’s admirable spirits do not flag under the depressing tale he tells, and though he suggests reform (principally public financing for congressional as well as presidential races), he does not fool himself that the power of money can be more than partly checked. It was a reform effort, after all, that created the PAC monster by limiting individual contributions. Money works constantly to…

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