Section three of the book, State and Local Government 1999-2000, discusses the role of political parties, interest groups, and political action committees in state and local governments. Recently there has been evidence that political party affiliation is becoming less of a factor in voters’ decisions on Election Day. In 1956, only 28% of voters who identified themselves as either Democrats or Republicans voted for candidates of the opposing party. In 1980, however, that number increased to 51%. In 1986, 20% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans voted for U.S. Senate candidates of the opposing party. One possible reason for this trend may be the increasing popularity of direct primaries. Direct primaries allow the voters to have a direct influence in the nomination process rather than having party leaders choose for them. Other experts say that independent political consultants and mass media have kept voters better informed through the use of polls and other techniques. Another possible contributing factor could be the rise of independent and self-starting candidates with economic and political resources of their own.
Despite evidence that political parties are weakening, some experts believe that they still play an important role in the political process, although that role has evolved over the years. They cite that control of state legislature is still determined by party majority, and appointments to state government positions usually go to members of the same political party. They also argue that political parties’ ability to raise funds for candidates and the services they provide continue to make them a driving force in today’s politics.
Beyle’s book also discusses the role of special interest groups in state politics. Some feel that special interests groups are a necessary part of politics, while others feel that they serve only themselves with no regard for what is best for the state as a whole. The article, “North Carolina: In Search of Clarity” by Ferrel Guillory, discusses how the problem of rearranging the voting districts in North Carolina were affected by special interests groups. The question at hand was whether or not the state’s black population would be better served to have to have as many majority black districts as possible or to have more votes in each district, with no district having a black majority. The 12th voting district, which runs through the middle of the state, was originally set up to be a black majority district. However, after several court rulings the state legislature revised the district twice, cutting it’s black population to 37%. As a result of unclear rulings by the Supreme Court on the voting districts in the past, the state is undecided on what it should do. The court is now reviewing the matter for the third time this decade.
Another article, “Power Politics” by Christopher Swope, discusses the topic of electricity deregulation. This prospect has some local officials worried about competing with private electrical utility companies. The article discusses how local officials in Tallahassee weighed their options, as Florida considered deregulation of its electricity services. Tallahassee would be especially affected because 32% of its budget comes from utility revenues. The question city officials were debating was whether it would be more economical to sell its electrical utility and collect interest on the profit, or to keep the utility and try to compete with private organizations. The city had to act quickly on the matter, because at the end of the month production on a new power plant was to begin. If a sale were to occur, it had to be before any tax-exempt municipal bonds were approved to fund the new plant. The city eventually voted not to sell despite the mayor’s belief that selling was the better option. The mayor believed that public interest helped to sway the voting. Tallahassee’s residents were happy with their current electrical service and feared that a private organization would not be as reliable. As a result, elected officials felt the heat to keep the utility, and may have cost the city potential revenues when they voted not to sell.
Now more than ever, special interest groups are playing a significant role in the legislation process. These groups use several methods to influence politicians, mainly by contributing money to campaigns and political parties and hosting fundraisers. In 1996, the average cost of winning a seat in the United States Senate was $4.7 million. Most of this money came from donors hoping to sway politicians in a favorable direction towards their interests (Lewis 6). Interest groups also give special gifts to politicians, such as all-expense-paid trips around the world. In 1996, 443 members of Congress and 2,020 congressional aides accepted approximately $8.6 million worth of these trips (Lewis 5). Although members of Congress are supposed to list the occupations and employers of their campaign contributors, the Center for Responsive Politics reports that 75% failed to comply with the requirement in 1995-96 (Lewis 60). This would indicate that they have something to hide. In return for their contributions, these interest groups, or political action committees, are allowed to attend party meetings and events. This allows them a chance to discuss their political views and concerns with legislators. Organizations often hire former lawmakers or aides to use their influence in persuading lawmakers. From 1991-1996, 15% of senior Senate aides became lobbyists for special interest groups in Washington (Lewis 5). In fact, 80.4% of corporations in the transportation industry and 70.8% of education interest groups reported having staff members with prior federal government experience (Hula 58).
It is no secret that some special interest groups have corrupted politics. Although there is a limit on how much a person can give to any specific individual’s campaign, there is currently no limit on how much can be donated to a certain political party. As a result, many large corporations are using money as leverage to sway politicians in a favorable direction on issues concerning their company. In an effort to raise money for the 1995-96 presidential election campaign, Democrats and Republicans both offered special perks to large campaign donors. The Democratic National Committee offered donors of $100,000 or more membership in a fund-raiser’s Executive Council. This gave these contributors the opportunity to meet with party officials and “offer insight and provide leadership on issues facing the party and the country” (Mahood 82). Similarly, the Republicans offered membership to their Team 100 club to donors of $100,000 or more. Members are required to contribute another $100,000 every fourth year, and $25,000 in the years between. Benefits of this club include attending national and regional meetings with Republican leaders and an invitation to the party’s annual ball (Mahood 82). Basically, those who contribute large sums of money to the political parties are given a chance to lobby for their own interests. Unfortunately, those interests rarely serve to benefit the average taxpayer. .
With another campaign season on the horizon, the issue of special interest groups and their donations to candidates and political parties is among the issues being addressed by three of the four main presidential candidates. John McCain, Bill Bradley, and Vice President Al Gore are all advocates of campaign-finance reform. John McCain, in fact, has made limiting campaign contributions his main priority. However, he was recently asked the embarrassing question of why he wrote letters to various federal agencies supporting fifteen of his top campaign contributors. An article in the January 17, 2000 issue of TIME magazine entitled, “When Does Money Matter”, investigates McCain’s motives. The debate began over letters McCain wrote to the FCC asking to vote quickly on whether to allow Paxson Communications, one of the nation’s largest broadcast companies and a major contributor to McCain’s campaign, to acquire a license to a public television station in Pittsburgh. Paxson has ownership in 72 stations and 51 affiliates that carry its programming. Pittsburgh is the only major city where it has no broadcast time. The FCC quickly replied to McCain’s letter, telling him to stop interfering with the agency’s business. In an effort to cover up for McCain’s actions, his campaign team then canceled a Florida fundraiser sponsored by Paxson, and released several letters McCain had written as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to agencies under the committee’s jurisdiction. This was to show that McCain helped companies who didn’t contribute to his campaign as well as those that did. McCain insists that he merely wanted to get a timely decision on the license, not necessarily an approval (Zagorin and Dickerson). However, McCain’s request was not the only thing he has done for Paxson. Last June he attempted to attach a provision to a telecommunications bill that would have made it easier for broadcast groups to own more than one TV station in the market. The provision was dropped. However, in August the FCC moved to allow many of the changes McCain wanted. As a result, Paxson’s stock price jumped more than 30% (Zagorin and Dickerson).
Unfortunately, John McCain is not the only politician in this country who has been influenced by special interest groups. In fact, similar stories of major campaign contributors receiving favors at the expense of the American public happen all the time. A simple provision attached to a seemingly harmless bill can cost taxpayers and businesses enormous amounts of money while a few large corporations collect big paychecks. An article in Time magazine entitled, “How The Little Guy Gets Crunched”, explains the process. The article discusses how a bill called the District of Columbia Appropriations Act, which was passed near the end of 1999, was more than it appeared on the surface. The main focus of the bill was funding for education and promotions for the adoption of foster children. However, a single section of the bill entitled Superfund Recycling Equity, inserted by Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, relieved scrap-metal dealers of millions of dollars worth of potential liabilities at toxic-waste sites. It is probably no coincidence that the scrap-metal dealers contributed more than $300,000 dollars to political candidates and committees during the 1990s. As a result of the bill, the liabilities were passed on to other businesses in the recycling industry (Barlett and Steele). The article goes on to claim that, “campaign spending in America has divided all of us into two groups: first- and second-class citizens.” In other words, campaign contributors and non-contributors. Some of the consequences of being a non-contributor include: paying a disproportionate amount of taxes; having to abide by laws that others do not; and paying taxes on necessities while others are allowed to write off entertainment costs. Some perks of contributing to campaigns include: immunity from certain laws; extension on debt payments; the ability to kill legislation intended for the public good; and special government funding for certain business activities (Barlett and Steele).
The outlook for the future does not look promising for working class citizens. During this year’s election campaigning, companies will continue to write big paychecks to politicians and lobbyists in hopes of receiving big returns. For example, major pharmaceutical companies are seeking legislation to extend the patent life of their drugs. This could potentially protect $3 billion in sales for the drug companies. As a result citizens would pay higher prices for medication rather than being able to buy generic products (Barlett and Steele 50).
On the other hand, money donated to campaigns helps to finance ads and other political propaganda that helps to keep voters informed on where candidates stand on the issues. There are also many special interest groups that work to protect the rights of citizens and the environment. It is obvious that something needs to be done to weaken the influence of those interest groups receiving special favors while everyone else pays for it. However, the fact remains that nearly every politician receives money from special interest groups. Getting them to cut funding for their own campaigns is not going to be an easy task.
In order to make politicians work more for the people and less for big industry, I believe more emphasis should be placed on live debates for campaigning. Perhaps funding for these debates could come from both state and federal government funds. Coverage by the media would serve to keep citizens informed. This would also make winning an election less about money and more about ideas and issues. Also, further restrictions and regulations need to be placed on donations to candidates. Details of campaign funding need to be made public, placing candidates’ motives into view of the American public. Interest groups would still have the power to sway public opinion through use of the media, but less power to sway politicians directly. As a result, legislation would lean more toward the good of the people than the good of large corporations. A democracy should work for all citizens, not just the wealthy and powerful. It is time that something be done to give the power back to the people.