But it’s not what you think …
So here’s the deal. Congress is filled with millionaires. Lots of them, And the new Congress is no exception: it’s packed with lots of millionaires.
At the same time, people running for office have to raise millions of dollars to have a credible chance of winning (assuming they’re not running in a safe district with no opposition). Two Congressional races near me cost over $6 and $8 million dollars, respectively, factoring in the SuperPAC money. (Neither was in an expensive media market.) That’s a lot of cash coming in.
Ipso facto, then: raising money might make one rich. Take the money you raise, put it in your pocket … millionaire status awaits!
Except that’s not really what happens. Ironically, the rise in the percentage of millionaires in Congress over the last 30 years is as much a function of the laws governing campaign finance in the US as of anything else.
Here’s the deal: under federal campaign finance law, candidates for federal office who raise money for their campaigns can only raise fairly small amounts of money at a time. Right now, individuals can give a candidate to federal office up to $2500 in the primary, and another $2500 in the general election. (This may sound like a lot to you, but a maximum $2500 contribution is .0003% of an $8,000,000 campaign.) The rules are different for SuperPACs, which is why they exist. But any individual contribution is small relative to the overall cost of a campaign.
The reason for this is simple: if the relative significance of any individual contribution is small, then the likelihood of it leading to political corruption is low. If I say “vote my way or I won’t give you $2500!,” you can laugh me off—you don’t need my money that badly.
However, the small relative size of any individual contribution means that a candidate has to spend a huge amount of time raising money. (The SuperPACs may change this, but haven’t yet.) It’s an enormous drag on a candidate’s time. Indeed, once elected it’s an enormous drag on elected officials’ time: they spend a huge chunk of their time fundraising for their next election. If they’re a party leader, they also spend a lot of time fundraising for others in their party. It has become the most time-consuming thing elected officials do—even more than legislating.
The thing is, if you’re rich already, you can sidestep most federal campaign finance rules. If you don’t raise any money, but instead just spend your own, there really aren’t many limitations on what you can do. You can spend as much as you wish, rather than being limited by what you can raise. You don’t have to spend any time fundraising, eliminating a major hassle AND freeing up your time to go around shaking peoples’ hands and otherwise engaging in real electoral politics.
In other words, since you don’t have to go around asking people to give you their money, you don’t have to do anywhere near the same kinds of things that non-wealthy candidates have to do to get themselves a serious chance of being elected.
Of course, rich candidates don’t always win. Neither does the best-financed candidate. But the simple fact is that it is easier to get elected to Congress today if you’re already rich than it is if you’re not. One reason for this is the way campaign finance law works. Thus a law passed (in 1974) to protect us from political corruption has also helped the rich get elected to the offices from which they pass laws eliminating the estate tax, reducing (or eliminating) taxes on capital gains and other income they earn, and the like.
Which lots of people think is corrupt.
Welcome to my favorite political topic: irony in politics.