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Commentary: Buying Congress


- By Jack Lessenberry

Tim Walberg, who lost his seat in Congress two years ago, is going back to Washington next month. Once he gets there, he will be paid an annual salary of $174,000 dollars a year.

That sounds pretty good, though it is a little less sweet once you realize that he has to live in two places, including one of the highest-priced real estate markets in the country.

That’s probably not a big problem for some of his fellow congressmen like Dave Camp of Midland, a multi-millionaire.

But it hasn’t been easy for some others. Bart Stupak, who is voluntarily retiring from Congress, lived for awhile in a boarding house. A few members have tried living in their congressional offices, but that hasn’t usually worked out very well.

What will boggle your mind, however, is how much it costs these days to actually win a seat in Congress. The official numbers are now in, and it cost six point three million dollars to put Walberg back in Congress. Six point three million.

Now he didn’t spend that out of his own pocket. That would be illegal even if he had the dough. His campaign apparatus raised and spent a lot of it. But outside special interests spent even more.

The Walberg campaign raised and spent one point six million. But groups from outside the district, like the Manhattan-based Club for Growth, spent four point seven million dollars.

By the way, don’t think I am implying that the incumbent  who lost was overwhelmed by a GOP spending blitz. In fact, the loser in this case, a liberal Democrat, spent more than the Republican.

Eight point eight million dollars were spent in a futile effort to return Mark Schauer to office. That would be enough to pay his congressional salary for fifty years.

There was one difference: Far more of Schauer’s money was actually raised by his campaign. Far less came from outside groups.

But it is very clear that campaign spending has gotten to out-of-control levels. This is a fairly recent development.

David Bonior told me he was embarrassed by how much his campaign spent when he first won a hotly contested Michigan congressional seat in 1976. It was a lot more than he planned on spending -- thirty-six thousand dollars.

Today, congressmen have to spend vast amounts of time begging people for money. Usually, they want something for it, which is an open invitation to corruption.

Something needs to be done. Most people think that’s impossible, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that corporations can spend as much as they want on campaigns. But there is a way, other than a constitutional amendment.

The vast majority of all this spending is for broadcast commercials. Congress, or even, the Federal Communications Commission, could require stations to supply all candidates with the same amount of time, as a public service.

Even before that, Michigan could require campaigns to provide full disclosure about who is giving what to whom, something the Supreme Court says is fully legal, but our state doesn’t require.

There may be other solutions, but we need to find one. The only alternative is to be content forever with the most expensive Congress that special interest money can buy.


Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
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