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The other essential campaign reforms.

The Other Essential Campaign Reforms

In addition to the virtual elimination of the franking privilege, there are several other reforms that we could employ right now to make political campaigns cleaner and fairer:

TV ADS--MAKE THEM MEANINGFUL. TV's visual effects have a power to mislead and deceive that far outstrips print. A politician's manufactured ads usually make him look better than he deserves and his opponent look worse than he deserves. And showing a glowering Willie Horton enables a candidate to transmit ideas he wouldn't dare write or say because of their unacceptability or downright falsehood. There's no social benefit in any of this. That's why there's a need for special controls on TV political ads. Fortunately, the required fix is very straightforward: All TV spots should be restricted to showing the candidate speaking to the viewers (or debating his opponent). This control doens't infringe on free speech. The candidate can still say anything he wants--he just has to say it himself.

AND MAKE THEM FREE. In many congressional campaigns, at least half the money the candidate raises goes into his television ads (in presidential elections, the percentage is higher than that). This means that the most direct way to end the money chase in politics is not the baroque "voucher" plans and voluntary spending limits politicians are now toying with--it's to give politicians air time. In return for granting television stations their lucrative broadcast licenses, it's reasonable for the FCC to require them to donate time for political ads. After all, in 1988, TV stations took in about $27 billion in ad revenues. Thirty or sixty seconds here and there isn't going to dent those totals very much. Admittedly, some detail-work will be needed to make this proposal function for the larger fields of candidates in primary elections, but there's no reason not to adopt it right now for general elections.

ELIMINATE POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEES--PACs are ways to disburse funds that cause nothing but trouble. Like the frank, PACs give an unfair advantage to incumbents, who receive by far the preponderance of their donations. (With the help of PACs, there are four senators running for re-election this year who have raised $1 million despite being unopposed.) Because of the way they pool contributions, PACs affect elections much more than any individual can. Indeed, PACs have made it possible for individual constituents to be eclipsed in the political process by other less worthy interests. Unlike the individual voter who, with his vote and his direct financial contribution to a candidate, is trying to influence the outcome of an election, PACs express an interest in influencing the person who wins that election, an altogether different and less healthy thing. PACs tend to promote single issue and special interest politics. Because they are creatures of money men and political operatives, they tend to squeeze out the points of view of the poor and the disorganized. For the same reason, PACs enable organizations in big money states like New York and California to have inordinate influence in the politics of smaller, poorer states. Any of these facts would be reason enough to consider doing away with PACs (and the PAC-like charades such as "soft money," through which political parties spend unlimited individual and union donations on "party-building" activities that ultimately help finance candidate races, and "bunding," where a group of people together orchestrate donations to a candidate while pretending that each is making an individual contribution). Taken together, these considerations provide an overwhelming case for abolition.

OVERHAUL THE FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION--What's the use of having good rules governing elections if no one enforces them? In 1984, Senator Alan Cranston's presidential campaign admitted to the FEC that it had accepted $45,000 in illegal contributions from a mob-connected commodities trader, Mark Weinberg. Although Weinberg never denied the action, and the FEC fined him for it, six years later, he still hand't paid up. "I'll eventually pay the FEC, but I'm in no hurry," Weinberg told reporter Brooks Jackson. "The FEC is a bunch of idiots, in my opinion."

The man has a point. The FEC has six members, with no more than three from each party, and since four commissioners must agree before any case is decided, this means that inaction is the norm. (The commission used to include the last two digits of the year that it opened an investigation in the numbers it assigned to cases, but it dropped this practice, which made it too obvious that it was taking years to resolve them.) Giving the FEC an odd-number of members and staggering their terms would help break it out of the purely partisan dead-locks it so often finds itself in now. In addition, the FEC should be given field investigators, the power to conduct random audits, and the permission to share its findings with other federal investigative agencies, including prosecutors.
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Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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