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Not dead yet.

It's hard not to be cynical about the prospects for campaign-finance reform. Given the enormous depravity of the Clinton Administration, and the nearly universal reluctance among politicians of both parties to do anything about getting big money out of campaigns, who can believe that Congress and the President are going to pass real reform?

In a recent article called "Teamwork," Hanna Rosin of The New Republic describes how members of both parties worked together to suppress the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, sponsored by Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, twisted the arms of freshman Republicans to oppose the bill. And Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, snuck around behind the scenes, closing ranks with the Republicans who want to keep the current Congressional investigation of campaign-fundraising scandals focused on the White House, and off members of Congress. "The last thing Daschle wants is a frenzy of public outrage over general fundraising abuses forcing Senators to sign up for McCain-Feingold," Rosin writes.

Rosin sneers at the good-government types: the "goo-goos," especially Feingold, who still believes that campaign-finance reform isn't dead, and that a grassroots movement will force Congress to overhaul the system. "A `grassroots upheaval'?" Rosin asks with heavy sarcasm, adding: "Evidence of a nascent mass movement is unconvincing."

But this is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw from the whole sordid campaign-finance mess. Feingold may or may not be able to rally support for his bill in this session. But two things are clear: Public disgust with the current campaign-finance system is at an all-time high; and members of both parties, while trying to position themselves as champions of reform, are doing all they can to resist real change.

The pressure is on for campaign-finance reform. But change will have to come from below.

A national poll by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Mellman Group taken last summer showed that a majority of people were in favor of reform that goes considerably further than McCain-Feingold. After hearing arguments for and against different proposals, 65 percent of respondents supported a system of full public financing that would eliminate fundraising from private sources. A 1996 Gallup poll came up with a similar finding.

A new group called Public Campaign, founded by Ellen Miller, formerly of the Center for Responsive Politics, is helping to coordinate state-level campaign-finance efforts.

Miller has been critical of the McCain-Feingold bill for not going far enough. "I wouldn't have wished it dead," she says. "But its obvious failure to break through the gridlock gives us an opportunity to go further and define real reform."

Real reform, according to Public Campaign, means what the group calls the "clean-money option." Under this model, candidates would receive a fixed amount of public money for their campaigns, eliminating the need for private money. To be eligible for clean money, candidates would have to raise a certain number of $5 "qualifying" contributions. The system would be strictly voluntary -- so as not to conflict with the Supreme Court's Buckley v. Valeo decision, which says candidates have a First-Amendment right to spend their own money on their own campaigns. But "softmoney" contributions to political parties would be banned. Candidates whose opponents declined public financing could get additional public funds, to avoid being drastically outspent.

Activists in Maine, Vermont, and ten other states have been pushing campaign-finance initiatives based on the "clean-money option." Maine has gone the farthest, passing a clean-money referendum that will take effect in the year 2000. The ACLU and some anti-abortion groups are filing suit, claiming that the Maine initiative violates the First Amendment. Other state initiatives may run into similar problems. While the clean-money model is designed to avoid conflict with the Buckley decision, there are also state-level activists who hope to challenge that precedent in the Supreme Court. In Vermont, a state senate clean-money bill, which only needs sixteen votes to pass, has twenty sponsors, and the governor has publicly endorsed it.

"There is extraordinary momentum in the states," says Miller, who has been flying around the country talking to activists. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, California, and Utah are among the other states pushing clean-money initiatives.

Some activists compare the effort to build momentum for campaign-finance reform to the push for nationalized health care in Canada -- which happened through a grassroots effort, one province at a time.

"I think we know that Congress is unwilling or unable to fix campaign finance, and the leadership is going to have to come from the states." says Anthony Pollina of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. "There is definitely a network of people among the states developing strategies and arguments, and sharing information."

Pollina and his allies hope the movement will spread from the state level to the federal government, as public pressure grows irresistible, and campaign-finance becomes an unavoidable issue in Congressional races. To help push the issue at the federal level, Senator Paul Wellstone, Democrat of Minnesota, is planning to introduce a bill based on the clean-money model later this session.

These are encouraging signs, far more interesting than the usual inside-the-Beltway cynicism.
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Title Annotation:drive for federal campaign finance reform
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Apr 1, 1997
Words:856
Previous Article:Getting rich first.
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