Let's Have the Full Monty
By Edward W. Miller
"Democracy," said Winston Churchill, "is the worse form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Running for office has become a game which only the wealthy, or those with access to wealth, can play. So-called soft money began drifting into our political system despite attempts by such watchdog groups as Common Cause, which filed a rule-making petition with the Federal Election Commission way back in 1994, only to have it rejected by the FEC two years later. Major party revenues have grown from $60 million in 1976 to more than $881 million twenty years later. Senator McCain made campaign reform a plank in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency, and as Senator has persisted in this reform.
The Mc-Cain-Feingold-Cochran campaign finance reform bill (S-27) quite similar to bills debated in the 105th and 106th Congress, was finally passed by the Senate this April 2 by a 59/41 vote. It prohibits soft money contributions (bribes) to national political parties from corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals. State parties that are permitted under state law to accept unregulated contributions cannot spend the monies on federal elections, or even advertising for federal candidates. Federal candidates cannot accept soft money. This Bill (S-27) hopefully will shut down the Washington soft money machine, prohibiting those $100,000 to $500,000 contributions.
McCain-Feingold doubles individual contributions to State parties for use in Federal elections, from $5,000 to $10,000, and increases individual "hard money" contributions to all federal candidates, parties, and PAC's from $25,000 to $30,000/year. The Snowe-Jeffors Amendment places restrictions on those "Phony-Issue" ads run by corporations and unions, while permitting non-profit corporations (501(c)(4)) to make electioneering communications with required disclosure. The same Amendment treats union and corporation donations fairly and equally with crucial public information to make available to all concerned.
S-27 prohibits donations from foreign nationals to local, state, or federal elections, prohibits raising campaign money on federal property (White House and Congress calls) and bars federal candidates from transferring campaign funds to private use. A somewhat similar Bill (Shays-Meehan), after a series of Republican delaying tactics is now scheduled for House debate beginning July 4. Just what will happen to it is anyone's guess.
Despite McCain-Feingold, politics will still be a wealthy ma's game. Figures available show that in the 1994 campaign, only 1/4 of one percent of all American voters made contributions of more than $200 in that election cycle.
Writer and critic Edward Zuckerman noted (PAC's and Lobbies, Feb. 14) that McCain-Feingold, who earlier had sought to abolish PAC's, then permitted their voice in federal elections. S-27 fails to adequately strengthen the FEC's authority to enforce laws under its jurisdiction. Zuckerman also critics S-27 for failing to even the playing field between incumbent and candidate.
What is really required, to give the vote back to the people is not only a reform of permitted contributions, but a reshaping of the whole election process, making campaigns shorter in length, and cheaper for all candidates. Cutting costs makes money less crucial, reducing that tremendous advantage the incumbent now has over those trying to enter the political arena. It seems unlikely that either the Senate or the House will this year address all the defects in our voting system.
First, we need two leisurely days for voting: both Saturday and Sunday so American families can come to the polls without interference from school or jobs and can plan their religious activities. Voting should be a leisurely community celebration not a schedule-frantic event.
Second: After watching the Florida punch-card fiasco, it must be obvious that simply filling in a circle with a felt pen would serve most of us best. Such a ballot is easily read either by hand or electronic eye. Moreover, as the average voting age is increasing, larger print and bigger circles can be easily managed.
Third: The present campaign schedule is ridiculous. Its extended and ambiguous time-frame creates much of the expense that makes money-raising rather the presentation of ideas and candidates the paramount object. No wonder we have voter apathy! No on enjoys being assaulted for months by mailings, radio pitches, telephone calls, speeches, TV and newspaper ads, etc. Tony Blair, British Prime Minister, limited their 1997 campaign to just six weeks, plenty long enough to get all the necessary ideas across and yet short enough to prevent ennui settling in. Long campaigns dull voter interest and reduce turnout on polling day. Americans are no smarter than the Brits. Six weeks is fine.
Fourth: We have forgotten that the chief reason we elect Representatives to both Senate and House is so these people can legislate. Today, however, time spent raising money detracts from their real assignment, which is running the Country. Communication with voters and lobbyists should take place in an atmosphere unencumbered by the almighty dollar, and at leisure... not in a breathless series of frantic grabs for big donations while ignoring the guys in the street. No wonder Senate and House Bills pile up at the end of the year, many unread or half read and annual budgets are seldom finished on time. Our Representatives can neither serve their constituents nor act as lawmakers while endlessly chasing the almighty buck.
Fifth: We must limit donations to both candidates and parties to amounts the average American can easily handle. Let's get rid of the term "soft money" and return to the original "bribery" so we all understand the situation.
Sixth: The attraction of money with all the stress and corruption that accompanies its presence in politics, can be markedly reduced if we copy the British who make both radio and TV time available free to candidates at all levels of government.
Remember, WE THE PEOPLE own the electromagnetic spectrum through which these communication modalities travel. Congress by simply fiat can order the FCC to instruct the commercial entities which today enjoy the use of our air waves to give free radio and TV time to the candidates at prime time hours. Six weeks won't bankrupt any of these monoliths. Ted Turner will never notice the difference, and the media can fit commercials in between political speeches and attract bigger audiences anyway.
If and when Shays-Meehan passes the House, we Americans will still need to repair the whole system. Let's have the Full Monty, not a band-aid.
FULL MONTY: an hilarious British movie and stage show where unemployed industrial workers strip for cash and fun.
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