Mary Clay Berry
Mary Clay Berry

Fellowship Title:

The Case for Public Financing

Mary Clay Berry
February 17, 1977

Fellowship Year

"I would pick up the telephone for a supporter before I would pick it up for someone else."


I have spent most of the past year watching lobbyists at work, talking to them about what they do and how they do it, and observing an assortment of unrelated laws make their torturous ways through Congress. I have done some thinking about what is right with lobbying and what is wrong with it.

I have come to no startling conclusions. I still think that, imperfect as the process is, there is no better workable one. Some people would like to change the process; others want to regulate it. Both are difficult if one takes the First Amendment at all seriously.

In 1976, Congress considered two similar bills which sought to define lobbyists and require them to register. Neither passed. One defined lobbyists primarily in terms of contacts with lawmakers and their staffs. The other defined lobbyists primarily in terms of money spent on lobbying.

I think that contacts are more significant but not because money has nothing to do with lobbying. Money has everything to do with lobbying. Jesse Unruh was right. Money is the mother’s milk of politics.

However, the important money is not the money that is spent on a given lobbying campaign, considerable as that may be (several of the lobbying efforts I have studied this past year were reputed to have cost millions of dollars; precise figures are almost impossible to obtain and that is something proponents of a lobbying registration act cite in support of such legislation). But it seems to me that the important money is not the money spent on lobbying but the campaign contributions, the thousands of dollars given would-be Members of Congress to ensure access to them once they are elected.

The problem with the present legislative process and the lobbying which it quite legitimately entails is that competing interests have such disproportionate voices. Some of the most effective lobbying on Capitol Hill is done by organized labor. (Effective as organized labor is, the unions’ legislative departments support so many different pieces of legislation that it is hard for labor to punish a Member of Congress who votes the wrong way on one of them but the right way on the other six or eight or ten.) Organized labor represents a lot of votes in some states and districts but the real political clout of labor comes from the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education and other union political action committees. (In fact, as a final resort, Alexander E. Barkan, head of COPE, sometimes calls upon a recalcitrant congressman. The specter of Al Barkan is a remarkably effective lobbying tool, according to observers.) Union political action committees give not only money but an effective campaign organization which can be placed at a favored candidate’s disposal. Estimates of the true value of COPE’s support in the 1976 Presidential election range as high as $19 million. Labor’s united support of President Carter made this past campaign a very different one from the 1972 campaign when the AFL-CIO was “neutral”.

Labor unions give enormous amounts of money to candidates, money which is raised from union members. The law also allows corporations to set up political action committees, financed with money which is raised from the corporation’s executive employees and stockholders. Corporate PACs have mushroomed. In the 1976 elections, business and trade association PACs did what the union PACs have been doing all along. They supported a broad spectrum of candidates in the interest of access. (Corporations still can offer candidates no comparable organization, no full-time organizers, telephone banks, or “volunteers” to ring doorbells or drive voters to the polls, as the unions do.) But increasingly corporate and trade association PACs are modeling themselves after the AFL-CIO’s highly successful COPE operation.

Neither the business interest nor the labor interest is necessarily the public interest, despite labor’s support of a wide range of social legislation over the years.

But, when it comes to campaign contributions, no one competes with the business-labor establishment. Over the past four years, the maritime unions have handed out more than $1 million in campaign contributions to House and Senate members. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners spent more than $202,000 on the 1976 elections. The American Bankers Association regularly distributes about $100,000 annually to members of key congressional committees. The dairy industry, through three major milk cooperatives, gave $15,000 to two House members who sought election to the Senate in 1976. The Weyerhaeuser Company spent more than $81,000 on the 1976 national elections. By contrast, the spending of consumers groups, conservation groups, specialized citizens’ groups and individual citizens is microscopic.

Clearly, the only way to attack the imbalance among competing interests is by imposing strict limits on campaign spending and contributions and by instituting public financing of congressional campaigns. I am convinced that the public good thus obtained would be well worth the expense. I think we can ill afford not to do this.

It will be impossible to prevent all money from changing hands. There will always be corrupt politicians and people, such as the South Koreans, who want to provide illegal funds will always find a way to do so. Some votes can always be bought and some politicians will continue to assess the private interests for money.

My chief concern is not for these instances of corruption, but for lawmakers who try not to be corrupt but are placed under tremendous obligations to the special interests which have helped to finance their election campaigns, private interests for which, in most cases, there is no correspondingly well-financed public interest. It is all very well to insist, as most politicians do, that the campaign contributions guarantee the donor no more than access. In lobbying, access is everything.

One of the pieces of legislation I followed this past year was the Forest Management Act of 1976, a complex bill which dealt with management policy for the National Forests for the next several decades. The lobbying battle pitted the forest products industry (lumber, furniture, pulp and paper, shingles and shakes, the mills and factories which produce these products and the unions whose members work in those mills and factories) against a loose coalition of environmentalists led by the Sierra Club. As part of my study, I examined the campaign financing records for various Members of Congress who played significant roles in the evolution of that legislation. I wanted to see where Weyerhaeuser, Georgia Pacific and the National Forest Products Association (among many others) had been putting their money. Not surprisingly, they had been spreading it around in a very catholic fashion in order to guarantee access wherever they might need it. But, in the course of examining these records, I was again struck by the compelling argument for the public financing of congressional campaigns.

Take the case of newly elected Sen. John Melcher of Montana, formerly Rep. John Melcher of the Second District of Montana. Sen. Melcher, a veterinarian from Forsyth, Montana, was elected on November 2 to replace the retiring Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Mike Mansfield.

I want to say at the outset that I have no reason to suppose that Sen. Melcher is anything other than a decent man who tries to be a good lawmaker. I know of no reason to suppose that his vote can be bought. He does not have a reputation, as do some members, of being a politician who solicits funds from the special interests not to rock their particular boats. I have watched Sen. Melcher, then Rep. Melcher, in deliberations in the House Forests Subcommittee and my observations indicated that he was hardworking, skillful, and fair. If he seemed, in this particular instance, to be partial to the interests of the forest products industry, I know no reason to believe that this partiality was based upon anything other than a legitimate conviction that what he was doing was in the best interest of the general public. Furthermore, I do not think there is anything particularly unusual about the way in which Sen. Melcher’s successful election campaign was financed. In fact, all these are reasons for looking closely at the financing of Sen. Melcher’s campaign.

Sen. Melcher raised $316,581.23 for his senatorial campaign and spent $314,955.43 of it. Much of it came from the Democratic Party, both within Montana and nationally. Some of it came from individuals in Montana. And some of these individuals owned or worked for businesses there — sawmills, banks, ranches, to name a few. Some of the money came from acquaintances outside Montana and some of these acquaintances were Washington lawyers and lobbyists. But most of the money — and the largest contributions except for party money — came from political committees organized by either labor unions, industrial trade associations, or corporations.

Sen. Melcher raised more than $15,000 at a Washington fundraiser on July 28. The law required him to list the names of all ticket purchasers who paid more than $100 and this listing includes a disparate assortment of individuals including Washington journalist Alfred Friendly; sugar grower Sterling C. Bain of Bunkie, La.; Washington lawyers Ernest Cuneo and Max M. Kampelman; and one fellow congressman, Fred B, Rooney of Pennsylvania. But most of the big donors were corporations, trade associations, or unions through their PACs. For example, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union bought $1,000 worth of tickets. The Seafarers International Union bought $2,500 worth. The National Forest Products Association paid $1,500 for their tickets. The Mortgage Bankers Association, the Weyerhaeuser Company, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners all paid $500 for theirs. Anaconda Copper spent $400 that night. Chevron Oil spent $300. And the Tobacco Institute, Burlington Northern, Continental Oil, and the United Auto Workers all spent $200 apiece. This listing is only representative. There were others. And the names of those who bought less than $100 worth of tickets are not listed.

Aside from those who bought tickets to his fundraiser, Sen. Melcher received campaign contributions from an assortment of Washington lawyers including Clark Clifford, James H. Rowe, and Thomas G. Corcoran, as well as $500 from the wife of a partner at Patton, Boggs and Blow. He also got contributions from the Washington representative of the Montana Power Company and a representative of the Western Forest Industries Association.

Sen. Melcher received $1000 or more (not including ticket purchases at his fundraiser) from an assortment of organizations, some of whose names explain their affiliations. They include: the Agricultural and Dairy Educational Political Trust (Mid-America Dairymen, Inc., a milk cooperative); the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a liberal political action committee; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the Committee for Thorough Agricultural Political Education (Associated Milk Producers, another dairy co-op); the Trust for Special Political Agricultural Community Education (still another dairy co-op); the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America; the Building and Trades Department of the AFLCIO; the American Bakers Association; the American Bankers Association; the Brotherhood of Railway, Airline and Steamship Clerks; the American Trial Lawyers Association (primarily in opposition to no-fault insurance; the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union; the United Transportation Union; the United Auto Workers; the Retail Clerks International Association; the National Education Association; the National Automobile Dealers Association; the International Association of Machinists; the Seafarers International Union; the American Medical Association (with a separate contribution from its Montana branch); the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association; the AFL-CIO; the Weyerhaeuser Company; the Georgia-Pacific Company (forest products); the Laborers International Union; the Communications Workers of America; the American Dental Association; the Oral Surgeons Association; and the United Steelworkers of America.

Sen. Melcher received a host of smaller contributions from other unions, several oil companies, a number of banks, and a variety of trade groups. In sum, everyone who thought he might need to talk to Sen. Melcher some time during the next six years gave him money to ensure that he would have access to the senator when he needed it.

Sen. Melcher’s Republican opponent Stanley C. Burger, raised and spent even more money–$575,159.49 in receipts and $553,461.61 in expenditures. He got large contributions from conservative PACs: $5000 from the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, $1000 from the Public Service Research Council, $1000 from the Committee for Responsible Youth Politics, and $2000 from the National Conservative Political Action Committee, (Since 1974, conservative PACs have flourished remarkably.) Burger also got contributions from oil companies ($2000 from Texaco, $1000 from Union Oil and $750 from Shell); opponents of unions ($4900 from the National Right to Work Committee); the real estate industry ($3000 from the National Association of Realtors); and opponents of gun control legislation ($5000 from the Gun Owners of America which represents the sporting firearms industry), as well as several corporate PACs ($1000 from Coors Beer and $1000 from MAPCO, Inc.).

At least Sen. Melcher and his opponent spent most of their money on campaigning. Rep. Fernand St Germain of Rhode Island, chairman of the important Financial Institutions Supervision, Regulation and Insurance Subcommittee in the House, raised $103,326.71 in 1976 (to which he added $17,799.45 from previous years) but spent only $83,034.33 of it, leaving himself, or more precisely his reelection committee, more than $38,000 in a NOW account in a Providence bank. The law does not say what Rep. St Germain can or cannot do with his money. It is his to use as he sees fit, if necessary carrying it over for a future campaign.

Rep. St Germain got more than $1000 apiece from an assortment of unions (the AFL-CIO, the Communications Workers of America, the United Auto Workers, and the United Steelworkers). Various industry trade associations — all of whom have business before his subcommittee, gave him sizable gifts–$2000 from the Independent Insurance Agents of America, $2000 from the National Association of Realtors, $1000 from the Securities Industry Campaign Committee; $4500 from the US League of Savings Associations, and $1000 from the California Savings and Loan League. E. F. Hutton (brokers) gave him $1000; the Beneficial Management Corporation gave him $500; and the Household Finance Corporation and its subsidiaries another $500. (It should be noted here that despite his surplus, Rep. St Germain’s opponent, John J. Slocum Jr., raised and spent even more in his attempt to unseat the Rhode Island congressman.)

There is no reason to belabor the point. Something is wrong with a system that allows, or perhaps even forces, Sen. Melcher to finance his campaign in this way and allows Rep. St Germain to collect more money from special interests than he can spend upon getting re-elected.

Public financing, combined with strict limits upon campaign spending, even stricter limits upon the size of campaign contributions, and the elimination of the so-called political action committees would free Sen. Melcher, Rep. St Germain and their colleagues from any sense of obligation to the private interests which can afford to make contributions to their campaigns.

Not that this would do away with corruption. As I said at the outset, I do not think there is any way to totally eliminate corruption. Accepting a certain level of corruption as inevitable in a democratic government. I am far more interested in trying to equalize the voices on all sides. Public financing is the best way to do it.

I think that equalizing the weight given to competing interests is probably more important than lobbying registration. I am not opposed to registration. I certainly do not agree with many lobbyists, of all persuasions, that registration would be so costly and so onerous as to inhibit lobbying which is, after all, a constitutional right.

I do not think that the real problem is finding out who is doing the lobbying, except in certain specialized cases such as tax lobbying, or even how much they are spending on the effort. True, it is almost impossible to find out how much a particular group is spending on a given lobbying campaign (unless the group is willing to tell you) and I think that this should be a matter of public record.

Campaign contributions — that is, legal ones — are presently recorded. In fact, in the wake of the Gulf bribery scandal and other similar revelations, corporations have been particularly scrupulous about revealing their political activities.

I tend to agree with the late Sen. Philip Hart that the amazing thing is not the number of politicians who are corrupt but the number who do not succumb to temptation. While it is no more than a gut feeling, I think there is less buying and selling of politicians today than there was at the end of the last century when Thomas Nast depicted the gluttonous trusts as moneybags weighing down the galleries of the US Senate.

A recent article in the Washington Post concluded with a quote from an anonymous defense attorney lobbyist who admittedly used money to keep things moving smoothly for the company he represented. The idea that big money can be eliminated from American politics is “as stupid really as saying all men were created equal,” said the lobbyist. It was a way of restating Unruh’s obiter dictum.

I would argue that nothing less drastic, in terms of the present system, than public financing of campaigns will restore some equality to the situation. Even if all men are not equal, in a democracy, their vote should be. And politicians should owe their elections to votes, not the campaign contributions of the special interests’ political action committees.

The 95th Congress is certain to review the federal campaign financing laws. How far Congress will move toward the public financing of congressional campaigns is an open question, despite the reform mood at present. Common Cause, the public interest lobby which has pushed for procedural reforms and election reform in the past, will continue the effort. But the special interests which have found PACs so valuable are certain to put up a fight to keep and strengthen them.

Received in New York on February 17, 1977.

©1977 Mary Clay Berry

Mary Clay Berry, a freelance writer, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner. She is studying lobbying in Washington, DC. This article may be published with credit to Ms. Berry as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The views expressed by the author of this newsletter are not necessarily the views of the Foundation.