Citizens must drive campaign finance reform Action at grass-roots, state levels is needed to force Congress' hand

March 09, 1997|By Rick Christie

WASHINGTON -- Two political parties that together took in roughly a billion dollars in contributions during the last campaign. A presidential campaign, desperate to raise money, accused of selling White House access to foreign interests. A voting public that feels increasingly disenfranchised by a system that caters to big-money donors.

"This is not an appearance problem; this is a reality problem," said Ellen S. Miller, head of Public Campaign, a new campaign finance reform advocacy group. After 12 years studying the influence of money in politics at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Miller is a leading authority on the issue.

She plans to work with state-level activists who want to pass reforms in their states.

The campaign finance investigations gearing up in the House and Senate are "a great reminder that the game to be played is not inside the Beltway," she said. "You have to go out to the states and work it from the grass roots back to Washington."

Despite almost daily revelations of fund-raising abuses, reform is far from assured.

"Congress will only reform the campaign finance laws when people demand it. If we continue to ask them to 'pretty please, change the system,' they're going to continue to thumb their noses at the public," Miller said.

"Our job is to demand that kind of change in a way that they can't afford to turn us aside."

She recently talked about the role of money in politics and the likelihood of true campaign finance reform.

What's wrong with the current campaign fund-raising system?

It's who gives the money and the fact that those who give it get something more than everyone else does in return.

And the fact that having to have that money discourages candidates from running. Look at the last presidential race. A lot of people didn't run because they said they didn't have the $25 million to $30 million it would take to be competitive.

Part of the problem is that the media uses how much money you can raise as a threshold test of how viable your candidacy is. That's why some, like [Texas Democrat] Victor Morales, were dismissed as a viable candidate [for the U.S. Senate]. He just didn't have the money. There's no way he can raise the money because he can't get his voice out.

Why haven't the campaign finance reforms enacted after the Watergate scandals been effective?

The post-Watergate laws seemed to bring some levels of spending under control but, in fact, what they really did was set the levels of participation at higher than what the average American can actually give.

For example, they set the contribution limits at $1,000. Well, we ,, know that less than a quarter of 1 percent of the American people contribute $1,000 to a political campaign. Actually, they contribute less than $200 to a political campaign.

So, what it means is that those who do give $1,000 get much more access and much more influence than the average American. And that's what's fundamentally wrong.

Despite all the negative publicity about campaign finance abuses, it still doesn't rank especially high in polls when people are asked about major problems. Why?

I think the reason it is not a first-tier issue for most Americans is because they can't see how it affects them directly.

It doesn't affect how they think, their kids' education, their jobs, crime in their neighborhoods. But in fact it does. And we, meaning reform advocates, haven't been very good at communicating how it does.

For example, crime. Let's look at the power of the National Rifle Association via campaign contributions and their ability to weaken gun control laws. That affects anybody anywhere who may be affected by a gun-related violent crime.

And regarding education, if we spend more millions kowtowing to defense manufacturers to let them build more B-2 bombers someone doesn't want, then that's less money we can spend on education for our children.

When you ask people what's wrong with politics, they say, "It's the money." They don't have a clear understanding of all the dimensions, but here is how they understand it: We spend too much money on politics; too much of it comes from interests that get something in return; good people don't have a chance of running for office, and; people spend too much time raising money.

What about the box on the federal income tax forms? Do people check that?

No, they don't -- which would suggest a lack of interest in public financing. [A key problem is] the $177 million in private money raised by the presidential candidates before they ever got a lick of public [matching funds].

And the public is asking, "Why should we give our money as a subsidy to the winners of the private money chase."

Before Bill Clinton ever got a dime from the public, he had already obligated himself to Wall Street and to Hollywood. [Republican presidential candidate] Bob Dole had obligated himself to the gaming industry and the accounting firms.

Is public opinion swaying toward changing the system?

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