Understanding the game

By ERNEST F. HOLLINGS, former U. S. senator

JUNE 6, 2014 -- I don't know of a better writer than Katrina vanden Heuvel but her editorial, Washington Post (6/3/14), indicates she doesn't understand the game in Congress. Katrina goes all out for gun control and is frustrated that Congress does nothing.


Katrina suggests: "What we need is a movement of every day Americans who believe in sane gun laws to stand up with the most vocal advocates at the forefront and replicate the passion and intensity of NRA activists." After Sandy Hook, we had a movement with the "passion and intensity of NRA activists" and still lost.

First, friends mean everything -- particularly in Congress. You never know when you will need another Member's or Senator's vote. When I came to the U.S. Senate in 1966, we made friends. I never had better friends than Republican Senators John Cooper of Kentucky, Bill Saxby of Ohio and Ted Stevens of Alaska. If they needed a vote and it didn't hurt South Carolina, even though I was otherwise disposed, I would give it for my friends. We "wheeled and dealed" as friends, fixing the vote.

In 1973 in a bipartisan vote, Congress limited spending in elections and President Nixon signed it into law. The law was reversed by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo when the Court made the fatal mistake of equating spending with speech. Now, Senators instead of becoming friends, raise money against each other. Party Campaign Committees have taken over the fundraising. Party Committees have replaced friends. Partisanship set in.

The Congress has tried for thirty years to correct the mistake of Buckley with McCain-Feingold, public financing, Constitutional Amendment, etc. but the Court has gotten worse and worse. In Citizens United, the Court gave Corporations unlimited spending and in McCutcheon, the Court decided the rich can buy the office. As a consequence, Congress constantly fundraises.

To be elected the seventh time to the U.S. Senate in 1998, we raised and spent $8.5 million. Ordinary folks don't have six years to raise money for a campaign. More and more billionaires, like the Koch brothers, take over. Only a Constitutional Amendment empowering Congress to limit or control spending in federal elections will suffice. My Constitutional Amendment to limit spending in 1998 received a majority vote but not the 2/3 required for a Joint Resolution to amend. In 2002, 2003 and 2004, I tried to get a vote on my spending limit amendment. The Republican Leadership wanted to pass a flag burning amendment to the Constitution and asked that I withhold my spending limit amendment. I refused and no Joint Resolution was called for consideration in the U.S. Senate for my last three years.

Senators have a six year advantage to fundraise and don't want to lose this advantage by voting to limit spending. They certainly don't want to be caught voting against limiting spending. Senator Udall has had an amendment to limit spending pending for four years. Fortunately, Leader Harry Reid said it will be called for a vote. Please call it. If it's called, even if we lose, the public will know who wants the rich to buy the office.

Lobbyists with the money have taken control of the Congress. The National Rifle Association controls the gun vote. The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) controls the Israel-Palestine vote. Grover Norquist with the Americans for Tax Reform has half of the House of Representatives and almost half of the Senate committed against taxes, against paying for government. Wall Street, the big banks and Corporate America control the economic and trade vote.

Lyndon Johnson couldn't lead the Senate today. Lobbyists no longer contribute to the Speaker of the House or the Leader of the Senate. They contribute directly to the House Member or Senator and every lobbyist knows the lobbyist that's closest to the Member or Senator. Lobbyists for one issue gives a vote to the lobbyists for a different issue just as friends swap votes. Instead of Senators wheeling and dealing, lobbyists wheel and deal and fix the vote. It isn't the power of the NRA that controls the gun vote, but the power of money and the lobbyists as friends. Limiting spending in elections will limit the power of the lobbyists and Congress can retake control of the government. Senators can wheel and deal, fixing the vote, and the NRA can't control. The task for Katrina is to get Harry to call the Udall amendment for a vote.

Senator Hollings of South Carolina served 38 years in the United States Senate, and for many years was Chairman of the Commerce, Space, Science & Transportation Committee. He is the author of Making Government Work (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

© 2014, Ernest F. Hollings. All rights reserved. Contact us for republication permission.

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Ernest F. Hollings served the public for 56 years -- 38 years in the United States Senate and as South Carolina's governor, lieutenant governor and a member of the S.C. House of Representatives.

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