A Call to Action: Clean up Campaigns Now!

Jan. 29, 2001

A Call to Action: Clean up Campaigns Now!

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook
at Town Hall Meeting in Little Rock, Ark.

Is there still any doubt that our political system has been completely corrupted by money? For many years now we have seen the steady erosion of our democracy as wealthy special interests pay more and more each year to purchase influence and special breaks. For our politicians, the money chase never ends. They have their hands out before, during and after each election. This money overwhelms the system, distorts the political process and shuts average citizens out of the political debate. And Americans are sick of it, sick of the sleaze they see oozing out of Washington. That?s why Senator McCain touched such a nerve on the campaign trail last year.

Unlimited soft money has become the elixir of choice for powerful corporations. It?s like crack cocaine — concentrated and powerful. A large dose of soft money injected into the political bloodstream goes straight to the heads of the parties for the election of their candidates. Our politicians are addicted to it, and many it seems will do anything to get it.

Soft money donors get a lot of bang for their buck. When big corporations and industry executives dig into their shareholders? pockets, they expect — and receive — quite a bit in return.

What does this mean for the average American? It means that the women and men who joined the Million Mom March after the Columbine High School shootings were thwarted in their efforts to get stricter gun control laws on the books. It means that millions of senior citizens on Medicare don?t get the prescription drug coverage they so desperately need.

It means that the casino gambling industry gets a $316 million tax break and when building new casinos is allowed to disregard environmental regulations designed to protect wetlands and water quality. And it means that millions of Americans continue to bear the brunt of airline delays because the airline industry persuaded Congress to let the industry write its own rules and follow voluntary guidelines for improved service.

The time to end this legalized bribery is now, and the way to do it is with the legislation introduced this month in Congress by Sens. McCain, Russ Feingold and Thad Cochran. We?re very hopeful about its passage. This is the best opportunity for reform in nearly a decade. We have a courageous cadre of reform leaders and a changing political environment. We also have you, who are contributing to the groundswell of support for immediate change.

The most important feature of the legislation is a total ban on soft money, an essential element to any true reform. Other critical provisions would regulate campaign ads that are disguised as “issue ads.” Tens of millions of dollars were spent on such ads by special interst groups in the last election — completely evading campaign finance laws. These provisions are narrowly focused and would not place any restrictions on newspaper ads, voter guides, mass mailings or Internet communications. Moreover, the bill is designed to cause minimal interference with citizens? groups? legitimate advocacy of issues.

The political climate for reform is better than it has been since the Watergate era, but getting this bill enacted into law will still take a fight. There are powerful interests that want to derail this legislation, because they know they will lose their stranglehold on the system.

We can expect to see two destructive amendments to this bill. The first would boost individual contribution limits to federal candidates from $1,000 to $3,000 per election. This is a stunningly bad idea. Even the current $1,000 limit puts our representatives significantly in debt to just the one-tenth of one percent of voting-age Americans who gave at least $1,000 in the 1999-2000 election cycle. Raising the ceiling to $3,000 would only make our elected officials more beholden to wealthy donors, who, with husband and wife, could give $12,000 per election cycle, a very high contribution level. In fact, if the limit were raised, large contributions could reasonably be expected to rise to approximately 55 percent of all House winners? and 64 percent of all Senate winners? individual contributions. This would do nothing to release the stranglehold that special interests have in Washington.

The other amendment would require each worker to give advance approval for any portion of his or her union dues used for political spending. This is a one-sided proposal because it singles out labor, one of the Democrats? most important constituencies. It is discriminatory because it does not apply to other membership groups such as the National Rifle Association or the National Right to Life Committee or, for that matter corporations whose shareholders don?t get to decide how political money is spent. It is contrary to the American tradition of voluntary association.

I urge all of you here today to contact your representatives in Congress and press them to pass the McCain-Feingold-Cochran bill, S. 27. Then, call your friends and neighbors, and ask them to do the same.

We need reform now. We must take back our Congress, so that our politicians represent us, not just the big corporations and industries. If the public, through Americans for Reform, can make itself heard, this country will take an historic step towards fulfilling its democratic promise.

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