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LANSING — Ninety years ago, Will Rogers made audiences laugh by saying: “America has the best politicians money can buy.”
Whether that’s still true is a matter of opinion. But beyond doubt, if you want a seat in Congress, you have to buy one — or most of the time, have one bought for you, and for amounts far dwarfing the salary you’ll ever make.
Want proof? Within the past few weeks, two longtime Michigan Republican congressmen stunned the state by announcing their unexpected retirements.
U.S. Reps. Dave Camp and Mike Rogers both are powerful committee chairmen. Neither would have had the slightest worry about winning renomination or re-election.
But both bowed out. Mr. Rogers says he is going to be the host of a new conservative radio talk show, which may say something about the relative social standing of Congress these days.
Mr. Camp gave no reason for pulling out just three weeks before the filing deadline, though he has battled cancer in the past. Both men, however, were due to give up their committee chairmanships, and may have felt that returning to obscurity wasn’t worth it.
Mr. Camp’s northern Michigan district is so Republican that it is hard to conceive that any Democrat could do well there. But mathematically, a Democrat could prevail in Mr. Rogers’ district, which includes Lansing, the state capital.
Democrats felt they had a strong candidate: Barb Byrum, a former state lawmaker who was elected Ingham County clerk in a landslide two years ago. Fourteen years ago, her mother, Dianne Byrum, then a state senator, nearly beat Mr. Rogers the first time he ran for Congress in a race so close that at one point he conceded defeat.
But last week, Ms. Byrum said she won’t run. “After carefully considering a run for Congress,” she told reporters, “I have determined that I can best serve the residents of Michigan by continuing my role as Ingham County clerk.”
Then, almost as if she needed to convince herself, she added: “Continuing to serve as Ingham County Clerk allows me to more directly fight for issues that will move our state forward.”
She may be unique if she really believes that serving as clerk of a middle-sized, mid-Michigan county is a more powerful position than a seat in Congress. However, the truth is more likely this: Winning this race would be a long shot at best. And she probably calculated that this year, there is no way she could raise the money needed to run a campaign.
How much money would that have been? Probably at least $3 million — and possibly more.
Think about that. U.S. House members are elected for two years at a time to a job that pays $174,000 a year. But every two years, they have to spend many times that amount to get to keep those jobs.
Michigan is more expensive than most other states. Four years ago, Mr. Camp faced token opposition, but he still spent $3 million on his campaign. Mr. Rogers spent almost $1.8 million.
Where does that money come from? Largely from big corporations and special-interest groups. Powerful Democrats often benefit from unions’ contributions.
Twelve years ago, I talked to former House Majority Leader David Bonior of suburban Detroit, who had launched what would be an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for Michigan governor.
When he first won a seat in Congress in 1976, he told me, the campaign had cost $36,000, “and I was horrified that we spent that much.” In 2000, his last re-election campaign cost $2.3 million.
After that, redistricting would have made holding his seat even harder. “I was tired of asking for money all the time,” he told me.
Clearly, however, other people aren’t. Debbie Dingell announced last week that she raised $500,000 in only a month in her drive to win her retiring husband’s House seat. This, even though she faces only light opposition in the primary and general elections.
Every sign indicates that the price tag will only get higher. In January, 2010, in its now-famous Citizens United decision, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court said Congress could place no limits on how much corporations or unions could give to influence elections.
Last year, despite howls of protest, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation designed to prevent disclosure of who is donating secret “dark” money that funds “issue oriented” ads.
It is hard to say what Will Rogers would have thought of all this. The famous folklorist and comedian was killed in a plane crash in 1935.
But he did once remark: “The Democrats and Republicans are equally corrupt where money is concerned. It’s only in the amount where the Republicans excel.”
Perhaps some things really haven’t changed.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org