Interview with Congressman Chris Shays (R-CT)

© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.

Campaign Finance & Reform

HSMITH: Tell me about lobbying reform though. What is it you're trying to change or to clean up?

SHAYS: Well, you have a whole group of Americans who reach out to their members of Congress through mail and community meetings saying, "This is what we believe are the average Americans." And then you have a special group of people who have particular interests who have access to members of Congress not back in the district but here, arguing their case. Now, their case may be very noble, but they have a special advantage. They study the laws, they work full-time, they interact with members of the Congress in a way that's different than the general constituency. And they're able, in that process, to work their will in a way that the general constituent can't. And so, it's really just a matter of kind of leveling the playing field; making sure that some members aren't influenced by the wining and dining that takes place; making sure that, in essence, everyone has a free shot at it.

HSMITH: In your estimation, what is all this money buying?

SHAYS: In most cases, it's buying access. The crazy thing, at least when I was in the minority, were all the various lobbyists and special interests that were contributing to, in the case of the majority, the Democrats who were voting totally against their interests, the lobby's interests. It amazed me that certain people would contribute to people who were actually getting elected and voting contrary to what the lobbyist wanted. But what the lobbyist got was at least access. They could present their story. In my judgment, anyone should have access and it shouldn't have to take that financial contribution. I think most members of Congress vote their conscience and ultimately know that whatever they do, they're going to have to explain it to their constituents. So I really want to be clear on this issue, that most members are going to end up having to come to this conclusion. Am I doing what I believe in? Am I doing what I can defend in a community meeting or before my constituents during election time? I think that's the bottom line issue for most members. Now, having said that, one word in a thousand-page bill can totally change the meaning of the legislation and can make you, that special interest, financially well-off or put them out of business. So take the word "not" out and you've got a different meaning in the sentence. So sometimes it's conceivable that in a major tax bill, you could make a fortune for someone and your constituents wouldn't know.

HSMITH: Are you disturbed by the amount of money? What are the things that you think are wrong with that situation?

SHAYS: Well, I just think that when you're interacting with people on a daily basis who are arguing their case on legislation, and doing a good job, and maybe you have people from both sides on a particular bill, for you then to go and say, you know, "I'm having a fundraiser and I sure need you to help out. "That to me is awkward, at best, and it's putting the lobbyist in a very difficult situation. The lobbyist has come to you for a favor and now you've gone to them for a favor. And that's where you kind of get this quid pro quo relationship and I think it speaks for itself. I just think it's wrong and it's the reason why I only had one PAC fundraiser. When I learned what you had to do, we decided in 1987 that I would not do any fundraisers in Washington, that I wouldn't seek money from anyone who lobbied me, and I feel a lot more comfortable with that kind of policy.

SHAYS: Once you have this large PAC fund, contributed to by many people, maybe thousands of people, ultimately a committee or one person decides who gets that money. And quite often it ends up being the lobbyist, who is interested in a particular piece of legislation. So, PACs have become a way of providing significant resources to lobbyists who interact in a very personal way with a member of Congress, and I think that's the problem. I mean, you end up with political action committee money where, if it's a union leader, the union leader wants to personally bring you the check for two thousand, three thousand,five thousand dollars, and hand it to you, and wants you to know he gave it to you and it was his guys and ladies that, you know, contributed. But that's also the same person that's asking you to vote this way and this way and this way. So, I think that's really the challenge with political action committee money; it's too connected to the lobbyists that want something from you.

HSMITH: So, where do you draw the line?

SHAYS: I think what you have to do -- and it's not popular with my own party -- I believe in public financing of campaigns, matching campaign contributions. The small contribution of $250 is matched by the taxpayer, and I think that makes the financial resources easier to come by, and makes the special interests less valuable, in terms of raising money. I think eliminating the soft money will be highly important, because now certain groups can write out a check for $100,000 like that (snaps fingers.) If you end the bundling, where the industry gets together and decides on one candidate, and one individual hands over a check to a candidate, that will have a significant impact. It won't solve the problem, but it will be a positive step forward.
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