Campaign Finance Reform
by Ronnie Dugger
Published on Sunday, April 1, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Some 44 years ago in Austin, Texas, lobbyists gave legislators two copies of bills to introduce with $500 in cash paper-clipped to them; some legislators introduced bills just to get paid for withdrawing them. Now, the shameless open corruption I first thought was a wildcat cesspool in Texas has become the national condition.

The public owns the radio and TV airways, but we license them free to corporations, whose stations, according to the Alliance for Better Campaigns, are gouging our candidates for air time to talk with us. The cost of political ads in the last cycle approached $1 billion and total campaign spending, $3 billion. Bribery to pay for the TV-hijacked campaigns is now legalized in Washington. Votes and floor speeches in Congress are paid for by political action committees directly interested in the legislation in question, legally. Gigantic corporations and billionaires slam huge sums of new money--a hundred thousand, half a million dollars at a clip--into the campaigns through the supine political parties, legally. PAC money is called "hard" and party money "soft," but hard or soft, both are dirty. President George W. Bush has proposed to make it even worse.

Corruption, to be sure, has always been a part of government. As Henry Adams wrote in his novel "Democracy," "Democracy, rightly understood, is the government of the people, by the people, and for the benefit of senators." But this now is such a corruption that it's collapsing the American experiment in self-government. The identity and existence of the United States as a developing democracy is in doubt.

From the Senate gallery and on C-Span 2, I have been watching the debate on the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill and the president's favored alternative, a measure by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). This high drama presents us not only with a treacherous tangle of reformist and corrupted agendas, but also with the stark question of whether Congress itself is too polluted a body to reform the campaign-finance system that has polluted it.

A certain moral desperation infests the players in and around the debate because of this question. For example, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose vaunted reform bill is silent on PACs and has already been stripped of provisions for free radio and TV time for candidates, said in New Hampshire in 1999, "We . . . are the defenders of . . . an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder." Later on, he added, " . . . all of us have been corrupted by the process--and you can include me."

As best we can, now that the Senate is about to pass a further-modified McCain-Feingold bill and reform leaders of the House muse whether to try for a better bill and risk Republican mayhem to it in a closed conference committee, we need to keep our eyes on nine balls, if, as interested citizens, we are to understand the course and outcome of this fight about the corruption that has overwhelmed the American government.

"Soft money," it says on one of these balls. That is the totally unregulated millions of dollars--almost half a billion of them in the last election cycle--that corporations, unions and rich individualsshovel to the parties for their candidates' campaigns. It should not exist. The Senate-passed bill would ban it. Hagel would have permitted it but "capped" it at $120,000 per corporation, union or person each two-year election cycle. For the first time, Hagel's bill would have formally legalized the use of corporate and union treasury money (in a ratio between them of 10 or 12 to 1, as experience is our guide) in U.S. political campaigns.

The Senate rejected the Hagel bill last week, but with GOP Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) vowing to kill reform by any trick, the same issues can come up again in the struggle in the House. The ban on soft money, considered by itself, would be a signal victory for reform; but it cannot be considered by itself.

"Hard money" is the $2,000 each person or PAC can give to a federal candidate during a primary-and-general-election cycle. Since all but half of 1% of campaign contributors give no more than $400, the limit really should be cut down to around $500. Hagel and the president wanted to triple it to $6,000. The Senate-passed bill doubles it to $4,000. Banning soft money while doubling or tripling hard-money limits and keeping PACs in place leave our elections just as corrupt, just as much the property of predators and plutocrats, as they are now.

We must watch, too, the three balls the president has in play: the "paycheck protection" provision (which more honestly should be called "gut the unions"); formally legalizing soft money for individuals; and an all-or-nothing provision about the prospective law's constitutionality. The first, which Bush was willing to apply also to corporate shareholders, was emphatically rejected by the Senate. The second would let billionaires continue to roll over the parties and the campaigns with unregulated six-figure "gifts," but the Senate also ignored the White House on that. The third, which most unguardedly reveals the president's Wild West Texas agenda, would knock out all provisions of the reform law if his Supreme Court found even one of them unconstitutional. Thursday, the Senate, 57-43, stiffed Bush on that, too.

There's a sixth ball: the limit to any one citizen's gross input to parties or federal candidates, now set at $50,000 across a two-year election cycle, going up to $60,000 under McCain and to $150,000 under Hagel. The bill the Senate passed runs it up to $75,000. There's a seventh one, allowing soft-money ads that propagandize for candidates right up to election day, which McCain and Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) oppose, but Hagel and the president support in harmony with the corporations' organizations and the AFL/CIO. Thanks to Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), the Senate bill prohibits this kind of sham advertising for independent committees, as well as corporations and unions.

The Senate bill assures that, if it becomes law, self-financed multimillionaire candidates can be opposed by candidates with access to millionaires, with the hard-money limits all but suspended. This is not reform; as Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) said, it goes in exactly the wrong direction. But this eighth ball might bounce crazily enough to discourage Croesuses like Ross Perot or Mike Huffington from running in the first place.

Ball nine is the Senate's plan to stop TV stations from gouging candidates for political ads. Under the Senate bill, a 30-second ad, which now costs $35,000 in the Los Angeles market, would cost about $10,000. We need free air time for candidacy-qualified candidates, but this would be a step in that direction.

Some of us whose fierce devotion to the American Civil Liberties Union has waned as the ACLU takes tobacco-company money and defends campaign-finance corruption are also paying attention to the provision in McCain's bill to require funders of TV campaign-propaganda ads to identify all donors of $1,000 or more to pay for them. The ACLU, ostensibly in pursuit of its dismaying conviction that money is speech, is determined to keep the identity of such donors in public elections secret.

A small, but real first step would be cleanly abolishing soft money without raising hard-money limits--or at least not raising them more than, say, $500. Optimists about the continuing strength of American democracy and the Democratic Party expect real reform to pass. I hope it will, but I am not optimistic. Banning soft money for parties and sham ads, while doubling hard-money limits and leaving PAC bribery intact, will reduce the illegitimate presence of large corporations in our politics, but will leave us with a continuingly disgraceful election-funding system dominated by the rich.

On two separate votes, about one-third of the Senate voted last week in favor of public funding of the public's elections. Although this first-time development was all but totally ignored in even the most serious of our newspapers, it is the strongest showing yet that members of Congress might recover their integrity enough to cleanse the campaign-finance system of the pollution that has resulted in their election.

Whether or not Congress is too far gone to make the system less corrupt, as a country we should set an example for other democratic nations by going on to abolish private money in the public's elections, altogether. Huge corporations and billionaires are strangers to everyday citizens, and when a stranger is trying to occupy your home, you throw him out if you can. He has already been thrown out of Arizona, Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts, where variations of public financed elections have been enacted.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and company trumpet the persuasive, albeit specious argument that public financing for the public's elections is giving tax money to politicians. "Food stamps for politicians," McConnell sneered last Wednesday on the Senate floor. But elections are not politicians' ego displays the citizens kindly sponsor, they are our highest-level exercises in our self-education as we select our representatives. Henceforth, we will pay for our own education. If Congress now just closes one polluting spigot and opens another one, we will turn them all off.

Oh, I say we will, but who knows? The evidence portends otherwise. If, per old Henry Adams, the senators benefit themselves as usual, maybe we'll lose our democracy--or maybe we already did, on Dec. 12. Maybe we'll find a way to save the Republic, or to start a new democracy. But this is a national emergency, and something fundamental can no longer be avoided.

Ronnie Dugger, author of biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, was the founding editor of the Texas Observer And, in 1995, founded the Alliance for Democracy, a national progressive-populist grass-roots organization.

Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times