Democracy under siege: campaign finance reform

HMOs shoveled millions of dollars into Senate coffers to get a “Patients’ Bill of Rights” that seems more like an insurer’s bill of rights. In the wake of thousands of gun deaths per year, Congress has consistently failed to pass any substantial piece of gun control legislation, because the NRA has purchased many of the “people’s representatives.” Congress is reluctant to do anything of consequence, because special interests, from trial lawyers to the Christian conservative lobby, are in the way.

Campaign finance reform may sound dry, boring and highly technical. Admittedly so, it does not have the allure of abortion or a free Tibet, but the current campaign finance controversy addresses the very essence of our democracy.

Suffocated beneath a patchwork of anachronistic campaign laws, members of Congress are forced to compromise their political values. With the astronomical cost of financing their campaigns, members of Congress are forced into a devil’s pact with special interest money. Politicians are not only driven to selling their votes, but they must also sell their convictions to finance their election bids. The actions of Congress are dictated by a moneyed few.

This is beyond mere corruption. This is an assault on our most sacred democratic traditions. Where are the real ideas? What has happened to ideology? Why are our elected officials unwilling to propose and support crucial and significant legislation? It has been over a generation since legislation of the highest magnitude has been passed. Even though today there is a host of problems that need to be addressed with comprehensive, far-reaching solutions. The current campaign finance framework diminishes the value of your vote and puts the higher premium on the donor’s dollar.

So, how are we to go about solving this egregious affront to democracy? As Senator Bill Bradley says, “we need to make clear that money must come from the public and be accountable to the public.”

First, we need to get rid of soft money, which corrupts our political process. Soft money is the loophole created by special interests to give them intimate access to politicians. By slamming the door shut on soft money, we eliminate the most significant avenue by which special interests control our representatives.

Getting rid of soft money is just the initial step; we must go further to make sure that members of Congress can act completely independent of lobbyists. We should still permit “hard money,” or direct campaign contributions – perhaps limited to $5000 for individuals and groups. A key stipulation would be to allow politicians to accept donations only from within their constituencies. For example, a person from Colorado or a company headquartered in New York could not donate money to a California Senate campaign. As Senator John McCain has wisely reasoned, we must also eliminate the privileged access that many special interests have to politicians: No more $50,000 nights at the Lincoln bedroom or $25,000 photo-ops with the First Lady.

Perhaps the most revolutionary reform would be the introduction of some form of public financing of elections, whereby the Federal Government would give cash directly to candidates. Through the use of some fair, uniform methodology, the Federal Government would directly finance election campaigns. Some of the funds candidates received from soft money under the old system could simply be replaced by public funds. This would give candidates a considerable degree of independence – they would no longer have to mold their positions according to the desires of their contributors. Those who argue that this would be expensive for the government fail to see that the total amount that would finance Federal elections (Presidency, Senate and the House) would be infinitesimal compared to the total federal budget, which is nearing the $2 trillion mark.

Since today’s campaigns are mass-media affairs, advertising is a considerable expense. We can easily relieve candidates of this heavy financial burden by providing free airtime. Television networks and radio stations should be required to allow candidates free time to get their ideas out to the voters. Because they have control over the airwaves and have the power to shape public opinion, the media should realize, it is their civic duty.

We should also find a way to shorten our political campaigns, so candidates do not have to stretch their resources over such a long period of time. Perhaps we could move up primary dates closer to the general election day. Campaigns today are too long, making it easy for the public to grow tired and bored with electoral politics. More importantly, however, it puts yet another financial drain on candidates.

Many argue that putting restrictions on campaign funding somehow restricts one’s freedom of speech. This is not true, money is not speech – it has become a tool by which big business, labor and other lobby groups influence our elections. By reforming our corrupt campaign finance system, we would be acting in the spirit of our forefathers by restoring power of the people over their representatives.