335. "Campaign finance deserves top billing" USA Today (August 7, 2000), page 15A.
Corporations made huge contributions to the Republican Party and to its convention last week. They're sure to do the same for the Democrats next week, which reminds us all how one of the least-addressed issues since the presidential primaries is the important question: How are we going to finance politics?
As I see it, drawing on my year as a senior adviser to the Carter White House, there is no domestic issue more important. The reason is that money taints most everything. Whether it is tax breaks for office equipment, exporting wheat to Russia, gun registration -- you name it, lobbies with deep pockets get an extra say compared to all others.
If we are to discontinue our drift toward a plutocracy, some fundamental restructuring of our politics is required. That's the easy part.
The tough question is: What might work and comport with our Constitution?
Al Gore would slow the flood of private money into public hands by setting up a foundation to pay the campaign costs of all who forgo corporate and personal donations. The foundation would seek to raise about $ 7.1 billion for an election round, drawing on tax-deductible donations. Interest groups would still be able to run ads (there is no way to stop them short of nullifying the right to free speech), but Gore holds that broadcasters should be required to give -- for free -- the same amount of airtime to candidates who take no private money. Such a requirement, of course, cannot be imposed on the print media or the Internet because these are not public franchises.
George W. Bush's program is rather complex. He would prohibit unions and corporations from giving "soft" money to political parties. In addition, union "bosses" would be banned from using the dues they collect for political purposes. Bush would require that candidates disclose the sources of the contributions they receive, in "near real time." He also would prohibit registered lobbyists from contributing funds to members while Congress is in session.
Unfortunately, there is hardly a prayer left for the bipartisan bill advanced by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., banning soft-money contributions to political parties, requiring full disclosure of independent expenditures on behalf of a candidate or party and increasing the resources and powers of the Federal Election Commission.
Cynics argue that there is just no way to stop money from flooding into politicians' coffers. If one approach is dammed, they say, the money will just find another.
They should look at Britain. Parliamentary-election costs there are much lower because campaigns basically are limited to a few weeks. Each candidate is allowed to spend a small fixed amount (it's determined by a complex formula, but average a puny four figures, compared to the millions spent by most American candidates vying for Washington jobs). If a candidate spends more, the election results are invalidated. Candidates can mail one leaflet to each household free of charge, and the parties get free but rationed television time.
Many Americans abhor the idea of the government covering election costs. Hence, Gore's attempt to circumvent the use of taxpayers money by using a foundation -- financed by tax deductible donations. (The government would still end up picking up part of the bill.) Bush has attacked Gore, calling his plan, half accurately, a "taxpayer-financed government takeover of campaigns." The fact is, though, if clean elections could stop even a few of the laws that favor lobbies over public needs, then paying for campaigns from the public till would be a tremendous bargain.
Thus, if we could kill some of the incredibly costly weapon systems that neither the Pentagon nor outside military experts favor -- say that additional Sea Wolf submarine or an LHD-8 ship, a helicopter carrier -- we already would be able to pay the costs of the next presidential and congressional elections.
Apologists for the current system argue that all money buys is access, not influence. But in a democracy, access should be based on how many voters you have lined up, the potency of your case and service done for your country -- not the size of your bank account. And access leads to influence. Corporations, unions, banks and the real estate industry would have to be both stupid beyond belief and in violation of fiduciary duties to their shareholders or members if they rained millions on members of Congress without any payoff.
Others point out that lobbying is a constitutionally protected activity, meaning that citizens have a right to petition their elected officials about whatever specific causes or interests concern them -- whether or not they are in the general "public" interest.
A leading political scientist, James Q. Wilson, recently wrote an opinion article titled "Pork is Kosher Under Our Constitution." Well, not in my book. It is fully democratic for voters to lobby their elected officials -- by writing them, sending petitions, buttonholing them and bending their ear.
But gaining influence by paying cash on the barrel is a form of lobbying that the Constitution hardly favors.
Whether you favor the position struck by Gore or by Bush, or believe we need much more drastic measures, there is little in the campaign of greater importance. Because unlike policies that concern specific issues -- be they education, farming or the Internet -- the way money flows affects practically everything.
Amitai Etzioni, who teaches at George Washington University, is the author of The Limits of Privacy.