Tom explains what it costs to run for public office

Today’s reading recommendatio:  “Is Democracy Melting“, Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, 27 September 2009:

So you, as a citizen, want to run for a seat in the House of Representatives? Well, you may be too late. Back in 1990, according to, a website of the Center for Responsive Politics, the average cost of a winning campaign for the House was $407,556. Pocket change for your average citizen. But that was so twentieth century. The average cost for winning a House seat in 2008: almost $1.4 million. Keep in mind, as well, that most of those House seats don’t change hands, because in the American democratic system of the twenty-first century, incumbents basically don’t lose, they retire or die.

In 2008, 403 incumbents ran for seats in the House and 380 of them won. Just to run a losing race last year would have cost you, on average, $492,928, almost $100,000 more than it cost to win in 1990. As for becoming a Senator? Not in your wildest dreams, unless you have some really good pals in …

  •  pharmaceuticals and health care ($236,022,031 in lobbying paid out in 2008),
  • insurance ($153,694,224),
  • or oil and gas ($131,978,521).

A winning senatorial seat came in at a nifty $8,531,267 and a losing seat at $4,130,078 in 2008. In other words, you don’t have a hope in hell of being a loser in the American Congressional system, and what does that make you?

Of course, if you’re a young, red-blooded American, you may have set your sights a little higher. So you want to be president? In that case, just to be safe for 2012, you probably should consider raising somewhere in the range of one billion dollars. After all, the 2008 campaign cost Barack Obama’s team approximately $730 million and the price of a place at the table just keeps going up. Of course, it helps to know the right people. Last year, the total lobbying bill, including money that went out for electoral campaigns and for lobbying Congress and federal agencies, came to $3.3 billion and almost 9 months into 2009, another $1.63 billion has already gone out without an election in sight.

Let’s face it. At the national level, this is what American democracy comes down to today, and this is what George W. Bush & Co. were so infernally proud to export by force of arms to Afghanistan and Iraq. This is why we need to think about the questions that Arundhati Roy — to my mind, a heroic figure in a rather unheroic age — raises about democracy globally in an essay adapted from the introduction to her latest book. That book, Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers, has just been published (with one essay included that originally appeared at TomDispatch). Let’s face it, she’s just one of those authors — I count Eduardo Galeano as another — who must be read. Need I say more?

Click here to read “What Have We Done to Democracy?” by Arundhati Roy — “Of Nearsighted Progress, Feral Howls, Consensus, Chaos, and a New Cold War in Kashmir.”


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). 

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Some posts about our political regime:

  1. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
  2. The Constitution: wonderful, if we can keep it, 15 February 2008
  3. Congress shows us how our new government works, 14 April 2008
  4. See the last glimmers of the Constitution’s life…, 27 June 2008
  5. Remembering what we have lost… thoughts while looking at the embers of the Constitution, 29 June 2008
  6. A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
  7. Another step away from our Constitutional system, with applause, 19 September 2008
  8. What comes after the Consitution? Can we see the outlines of the “Mark 3″ version?, 10 November 2008
  9. Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?, 27 March 2009
  10. “Lights, Camera, Democracy” by Lewis Lapham, 24 May 2009
  11. “The Constitution that I interpret and apply is not living, but dead.” – Supreme Court Justice Scalia, 9 June 2009

11 thoughts on “Tom explains what it costs to run for public office”

  1. A former ambassador to Washington also indicated that it costs about 3K a day, or $1 million a year, to maintain the offices of a Congressman.

    That means that, unless you are super independently wealthy, every day you wake up you know that you need to raise $3,000 to keep the lights on.

  2. Expand the House?“, op-ed in the New York Times, 17 September 2009

    An interesting thought experiment would be to consider how the proposals to radically expand the size of the House of Representatives would impact the cost of running for a seat in that chamber. If you went all the way and got back to the same size House districts were when the country was founded — about 33,000 people per district, rather than the nearly half-million of today — you’d be talking about a much, much more intimate campaign, which presumably would have a correspondingly lower financial barrier to entry. (You don’t need to buy TV time to reach thirty thousand people.)

    Of course, having House districts of that size would mean a House with more than 9,000 seats, instead of the current 435. Which would mean a whole new set of logistical challenges…
    Fabius Maximus replies: Chet Richards discusses this in his book “If We Can Keep It”.

  3. Another interesting thought experiment would be to consider how to get rid of the present system of gerrymandering safe—and uncompetitive—house seats. Some estimates have the figure at better than 2/3 of the house.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Restated, this asks how to restore competitive elections to our national political system. It’s a vital point!

  4. comment #3

    Are these two issues not interconnected?

    With those expenses of gaining and keeping a seat in the house the economic incentives towards gerrymandering goes up for all involved. And vice versa gerrymandering increases the expense of gaining a new seat from the established candidate.

  5. Rune, not only that… I think people are less inclined to vote because of it. So it has a snowball effect.

    Fabmax often talks about the lack of focus for the Tea Party People… this is exactly the kind of thing they should get behind. It is a simple issue, one that can be voted on in state referendums.

  6. The reason these seats are so expensive is because the stakes are so high. If Congress weren’t perpetually establishing more and more control over us, and dividing up and parceling out the fruits of Americans’ labor on whatever is the day’s favorite K-Street cause, I doubt anyone would care so passionately about which group gets which piece, because the “pie” would be in the pockets of individuals instead of the bureaucracy.

    Take away the control that these congresspeople have over our lives and then see who wants to contribute.

    We could start by abolishing the Federal Income Tax. Heck, then we wouldn’t be able to finance these wars…

  7. With $ inflation factored in, this means the price of the seat has roughly doubled since 1990.

    And why are we getting so indignant about code words like “Democracy”, “Free-elections”, and “Free-trade”? These have always been coda in US politics for something other than their dictionary definitions (see Noam Chomsky for more details).

  8. A lot of what goes on in American politics is common to other places. But there is a big difference: politics in America is much more a form of entertainment than in other western countries. The politicians act much more as celebrities and at the end of the day many people vote for the most popular celebrity rather than policies or ability or even political skills.

    The problem then is that there is a linear relationship between celebrity popularity and money spent – you really cannot buy too much exposure. This relationship dose not exist for policies or even talent (within a party). So while some money is needed to get up to get a set of policies and attract some talent, more money does not necessarily get you better policies or talent. But more money always gets you more celebrity popularity.

    In effect politics is reduced to a bidding race with no upper limit.

    In an age when American children say their preferred job when they grow up is to be a celebrity it’s hardly surprising that politicians are starting to reflect those values.

    It would be interesting to see what value the political marketers would put on a state of the union address vs Obama throwing the first ball in the first socks game. It would probably be several times less.

  9. “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” — Tyler Durden in the movie “Fight Club”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: