IN POLITICS, as anywhere else, money talks. Although many politicians maintain that money alone cannot elect a man who wouldn't attract a substantial following without it, it sure helps. A politician with money can pay for more advertising, better ad agencies, more frequent polling, and more telephones, cars and, in general, shell out more "walking around money" to build his field organization. And if he doesn't have the brains to take advantage of all the advantages money can buy, he can hire himself a top-notch political consultant who does to run his campaign. Although big spenders are not unbeatable, their track record is pretty good. Representative H. John Heinz III (R-Pa.) led the list of candidates for U.S. Senate seats in spending, with a total of more than $2 million--most of it from his own $13 million bankroll.
The elections in which money becomes a decisive factor are referenda, because there are no candidates involved who might sway voters through their own personal appeal. In contests over Equal Rights Amendments, handgun bans, bottle bills, or nuclear power limitations, voter "education" is the key. The side that can mount the most effective advertising campaign is usually the side that wins.
The results of last month's referenda in Massachusetts showed clearly the power of massive spending, and the list of contributors to the campaigns against several of the questions shows even more clearly the weaknesses of the present campaign financing laws in this state.
Less than a week after the election, the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance began auditing the disclosure statements of all committees in favor of and opposed to the referenda questions. And, with good reason, for it now appears that one of the institutions of old-style politics the new campaign laws were supposed to eliminate, the blind or "dummy" committee, is not yet dead.
Question 5 on the Massachusetts ballot was a proposed law that would have banned the private ownership of handguns. The main committee opposing it was Taxpayers Against Question 5, located at 11 Main Street in Southboro. The committee reported to the campaign finance office a total expenditure of roughly $105,000, including contributions from many local gun clubs and hunting associations, and a gift of $30,000 from the National Rifle Association in Washington, D.C. But it also reported receiving, in six installments, a total of $71,000 from a group called the Gun Owners Action League. Strangely enough, the Gun Owners Action League also lists its address as Box 272 at 11 Main Street in Southboro. There may be nothing illegal or even unethical about the arrangement between the Taxpayers Against Question 5 and the Gun Owners Action League. But there is something suspicious about it: in the past, committees like the Action League have been used to take contributions from individuals and corporations that did not want their names appearing on disclosure lists. And although Taxpayers Against Question 5 had not yet submitted a final report to the campaign finance office, its phone was disconnected within a week after the election and its officers were unreachable.
OF ALL THE committees for or against referenda questions, the champion spender was the Committee to Protect Jobs and the Use of Convenience Containers, which opposed the bill to ban nonreturnable soft drink and beer containers. In campaigning against the bill, which would have mandated a deposit of at least 5 cents on each bottle or can sold in the state, the Committee to Protect Jobs spent a total of $1.21 million. Of that amount, only 23 per cent, or about $283,000, came from Massachusetts residents or locally based corporations. Seventy-seven per cent of the money pumped into the anti-bottle bill crusade came from out of state, nearly all of it from corporations. Only $1531 came from out-of-state individuals, and no more than $1100 came from individuals living in Massachusetts. That means that 99.8 per cent of all the contributions against the bottle bill came from businesses that might have been affected by the bill's passage.
A handful of corporations contributed heavily. Coca-Cola and its bottling affiliates gave more than $164,000, Pepsi more than $91,000, and the Can Manufacturer's Institute, a lobbying group, more than $186,000. (See table.)
Through the Committee Opposed to the State Takeover of the Electric Industry, local power companies raised thousands of dollars to defeat a proposal to create a public power authority in Massachusetts. Cambridge Electric generated only $14,000; Boston Edison and Massachusetts Electric gave $179,000 and $195,000 respectively.
While the Gun Owners Action League's contributions may be of questionable legality because it did not file its own disclosure reports, the out-of-state and corporate contributions are perfectly legal. And while all of the information reported here is a matter of public record and can be examined in even greater detail by anyone who cares to at the campaign finance office, few newspapers in Massachusetts have bothered.
This points out two major faults with the local campaign reform legislation enacted in the wake of the 1972 campaign and the Watergate hearings. The new Massachusetts laws banned corporate contributions to candidates, and limited all individual contributions--to candidates and referendum committees--to $1000 each. It clearly did not ban or even limit business contributions to political committees for or against ballot questions that would affect their business. The effect of this has been all too dramatic. Most of the contributors to committees in favor of the bottle bill, for example, were individuals who, even if they could afford to contribute more than $1000, were prohibited from doing so. To their opponents, however, contributions of $10,000 were but a drop in the bucket. The logical solution to these problems is legislation limiting corporate and out-of-state contributions, but it seems unlikely that the Massachusetts legislature will act to impose limits during its next session.
WHEN THE LEGISLATURE wrote the laws requiring candidates and political committees to report contributions and expenditures, there was at least a half-hearted expectation that contributions would become widely publicized. That hope has remained largely unfulfilled. It takes time and careful effort to pore over the contribution lists, which are complicated, sometimes confusing and often run 20 legal sized pages or more. Usually, such a detailed examination will not produce a front-page story, because there is generally nothing illegal or truly scandalous to be found. But what there is, is interesting, and illuminating of the way elections were won or lost. Generally, the Globe and The Phoenix reported only total expenditures, never going beyond the overall figures.
Reporters once looked forward to the day when they could poke around in the political skeleton closet of fundraising. Now that they've been given the opportunity, few have exercised it, succumbing to the old political trick of burying an investigator under a mass of data too big and diffuse to sort through. But only when the reporters and their editors take advantage of the disclosure laws--and take their notebooks and calculators into the campaign finance office--will there be any hope of sparking enough public outrage to spur the recalcitrant legislature into action.