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The money fix.

The Democrats' plan to clean up campaigns wont' make politicians kick the Big Dollar habit. I know; I was addicted once myself

Last May, President Clinton unveiled his plan to change corrupt campaign practices. The president calls his proposal the "most comprehensive reform of the political system in the history of this country." I call this a scam. If every line of the President's legislation were adopted tomorrow, the same corruption in Washington would continue - at conveniently reduced prices. The checks that buy the votes would still be signed by those who sign them now. Corporate executives and the wealthy would still call the tune.

I grew up in politics. My father rose from San Francisco district attorney to state attorney general to governor of California. He beat Richard Nixon, lost to Ronald Reagan, and missed just one Democratic National Convention in 50 years. I have been present at hundreds and hundreds of fundraising events. Maybe thousands. I have lost count, but I know I have raised roughly $20 million since the early seventies.

Contributions of $10,000 and even $100,000 are not unfamiliar to me. I have spent days on end cajoling all manner of rich and powerful people out of money to mount multimillion dollar campaigns for the U.S. Senate, the California governorship, and the presidency. More recently, as chairman of the Democratic Party of California, I collected more millions. In 1989, for example, I organized a dinner honoring Mario Cuomo at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles and raised $750,000. In 1990, I put on another dinner with Lloyd Bentsen at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco and collected $550,000. I know what I am talking about. This is about corruption, not a mere "money chase."

I know that our entire campaign system rests on the twin pillars of $1,000 donations, bundled and multiplied 10, 20 or even 100 times, and the massively repetitive TV ads and expensive mailings these $1,000 donations buy. House Speaker Thomas Foley recently said that it is a "tremendous distortion of reality" to say that Congress is getting corrupt. That depends on what you call corruption.

The corruption I speak of is not legally defined as a felony - at least not yet - but rather is the current method of paying for American elections. You take money from the richest and best connected 1 percent to get elected and then pretend that this does not affect your judgment.

Jess Unruh, the famous speaker of the California State Assembly in the sixties, coined the phrase, "money is the mother's milk of politics." He said that you had no business in politics unless "you could take their money, eat their food, drink their booze, f - their women and then vote against them." That's what I call either naive or skillfully self-deceptive.

As you might expect, Speaker Foley also depends political action committees (PACs), calling them "one of the most effective ways for people to make smaller contributions." Who is he kidding? PAC donations are managed and guided by the same elite who write the $1,000 checks, i.e., corporate vice presidents in charge of "government relations." The only difference between PACs and individual high rollers is that PACs are permitted to ante up $5,000. Of course, there are labor and liberal PACs, but these mainly act as a foil to the better-financed corporate and trade association PACs. Worse, the operatives of the so-called progressive PACs often take on the Belt-way perspective of their corporate counterparts. Jeffrey H. Birnbaum of The Wall Street Journal describes it this way: ". . . lawmakers and lobbyists moving together in a largely closed and isolated system, discussing decisions that affect millions of other Americans."

For the Democratic leadership, the temptation is denial, to believe that they are good but practical men able to govern for all while relying on money from the few. For all the incumbents, Republican and Democrat, the tendency is to fight every effort to reduce the role of the wealthy. Enjoying as they do $135,000 a year salaries, the best health care, and innumerable perks, these men and women are insulated from the real world most of their constituents face. And it all begins with those fundraising dinners.

Pac it in

President Clinton's campaign "reform" proposals do nothing to stop this subversion of democracy. True, the cost of running some campaigns would go down under his plan, but the same type of people would remain in charge by writing large checks beyond the reach of most Americans. Only those candidates who attract the favor of the powerful will be able to amass large campaign warchests to run successfully. For the House, Clinton proposes business as usual with the same $5,000 PAC and $1,000 individual donations. The voluntary $600,000 spending limit is above the 1992 average of $557,000 spent by incumbents and way above the $169,000 spent by challengers. And even this so-called spending limit - which applies to those candidates who accept public funds - is deceptive. Candidates who win their primary by less than 20 percent can spend an additional $150,000 in the general election; fundraising costs up to $75,000 are also exempt from the limit. All this is indexed to inflation as well, which puts the "cap" at roughly $900,000 in 1996.

And the public financing provisions of the plan are so limited that they do not remove the need to raise large sums to win office. For House races, candidates may receive up to $200,000 in media vouchers to purchase radio, television, and print ads and postage only after they have first raised $75,000 - not a trivial sum for those without affluent supporters. Taken as a whole, Clinton's plan leaves intact a system dependent on the same narrow sources of money.

For the Senate, expenditure limits are set between $1.2 million and $5.5 million, depending on the state's voting age population, but this "cap" does not include up to $2.75 million for primary election campaigning or cost of living adjustments. The Senate, which has already passed its version, bans PAC contributions but allows candidates to keep collecting the covered $1,000 checks from individuals. Under pressure, the Democratic leadership, instead of fighting, quickly capitulated to the Republicans and stripped publicly funded media and mail vouchers from the bill.

Why is the Congress so incapable of changing the status quo? I suggest you look at the March 4, 1993, Federal Election Commission report on the last election. It shows that congressional campaign spending jumped 52 percent - from $446 million in 1990 to $678 million in 1992. That's more than a million dollars for each of the 535 members of Congress. House incumbents had a 5-to-1 financial advantage over challengers in 1992; senators had a 3-to-1 edge. And of the Top 40 House recipients of PAC money in 1992, each and every one were incumbents, and 37 were Democrats. Congressmen Richard Gephardt, Vic Fazio, Dan Rostenkowski, David Bonior, and John Dingell - certainly among the House's most influential leaders - ranked one through five, raising a total of over $5 million from PACs. In the Senate, 25 of the Top 40 PAC recipients were Democrats.

We also learn that as a group House Democratic incumbents received more than 50 percent of their $126 million in campaign checks from PACs. No wonder they resist banning PACs. Is this the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, of the "common man," of the hard-pressed wage earner, of those who suffer despair in our cities?

To understand how deep the hostility to change is, consider what happened to President Clinton's plan as it went through the process. Before the plan was even announced, the incumbents served notice that they would accept no drastic changes. Clinton bowed to their wishes, abandoning his modest campaign commitment to limit PAC contributions to $1,000. He also went along with postponing the law's effective date from 1994 to 1996. Then, without bothering to hold hearings in which citizens could meaningfully participate, the Senate took up the weakened bill and desultory debate ensued. Senator Paul Wellstone offered an amendment to limit contributions to $100. Just 13 senators voted yes. More amendments. More discussion. There was little public notice or media attention. Then public financing was stripped away. But the $1,000 gift remained sacrosanct and the status quo - what Kevin Phillips calls "greed-lock" - held firm. Like an insidious pathogen, the ingrained practice of money politics attacks and then kills every attempt at genuine reform.

The great constitutional principle of "one person, one vote" has been betrayed and in its place we find a rogue system where the pursuit of "one dollar, one vote" takes over. And the obvious way for the public to learn about this - informed press coverage - is infrequent and thin. Reporters thrive on political combat and in the matter of campaign reform, there is more consensus than conflict among the incumbents. Their debate lacks intensity, and that discourages coverage. The New York Times and The Washington Post ritually editorialize about the need for campaign reform but dutifully embrace the empty packages the leadership puts together. Is anyone listening? Does anyone care?

What we have here is sham and pretense. The congressional incumbents will not clean up a system that insures them a flow of money to smother their opponents. As the electoral process now functions, it is the exception rather than the rule for citizens to have equal access and exposure to candidates. In this anti-democratic system, the objective of any prudent candidate must be to amass enough money to deter potential opposition, or failing that, to ensure that the quantity of their campaign messages overwhelms the opposition. For this plutocratic endeavors, money from the top 1 percent is almost always a sine qua non.

Dollar bills

This money driven system corrodes intelligent debate and rewards those candidates who win disproportionate access to the voters' minds through paid media repetition. It is not what you stand for but whether you can buy five or ten times more media or mail than your opponents. It is this evil that the President and Congress must address if there is to be honest reform.

* To radically reduce the influence of corporate and high income donors, the $1,000 donation must be cut to $100 and PAC contributions outlawed. When I was running for president in 1992. I asked hundreds of audiences across the country to raise their hands if they had never given $1,000 to a politician. Virtually all hands would go up, accompanied by laughter or disbelief. One thousand dollar donations are the prerogative of the few. A $100 limit, which is within reach of most Americans, together with the following reforms, will make the system democratic - in practice as well as in theory.

* Full public matching funds must be given for each $100 donation after a reasonable threshold has been attained. Such a system operates in presidential nominating campaigns and Democrats and Republicans alike gladly avail themselves of this form of public support.

* Significant amounts of free TV and radio broadcast time featuring the candidates addressing the viewers must be made available. Candidates would qualify by collecting a reasonable number of petition signatures. It is simply impossible for most people to ever see or hear a political candidate except through the mass media. Without exaggeration, the mail and public airwaves are the functional equivalent today of the public square of old. That is why their political use must be democratized.

Only a plutocracy sanctions the rationing of political debate based on the ability to pay. I believe every broadcast outlet must be devote at least one hour a day in a campaign's last month to debates or forums in exchange for the licenses we the people grant them. During this period, the stations would present the debates during the same primetime hour every night, free of film clips and gimmicks. Meanwhile, privately paid candidate advertising would be outlawed, breaking politics free of the 30- or 60-seconds commercial in which manufactured images dominate political debate. Incumbents and challengers alike could no longer use uplifting music and family dogs to sell a candidate like a Jeep Wagoneer. This would also end the dependency on quick, distorting sound-bite attacks. If the courts hold this unconstitutional, then an alternative rule should mandate that each time one candidate or party buys time, the opposition will be granted free, equivalent exposure.

* The postage for at least two district wide mailings must be made available free to all candidates in both the primary and general elections. In House races where TV is not practical more mailings should be authorized.

* Once the costs of media advertising are out of the equation, it makes sense to set low limits on spending to reflect the average experience of challengers, not the incumbents. With free TV and postage, this becomes feasible.

* Drastically limit the incumbent's franking privilege during election years. Even in non-election years, franking should be substantially cut, stopping the flow of newsletters members of Congress mail out only to propagandize the voters.

I know that nothing less will alter the profoundly disordered state of American politics. Greedlock cannot be overcome by half measures. The first step is to expose the empty reforms now before the Congress. Unless reporters, activist groups, and fed-up citizens do this now, while Congress debates the issue, the charade will continue.
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Title Annotation:campaign finance reform
Author:Brown, Jerry
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Previous Article:Renter beware.
Next Article:Why the party of the people has a grassroots problem.

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