Last year, at a conference on how our elected representatives are ruttish whores to big money, one participant proposed reforms so perverse that panelist Ellen Miller of the Center for Responsive Politics remembers wondering, Who is this Republican?
First, the person said, double the amount individuals can contribute from $1,000 to $2,000. Second, raise the amount parties can give to candidates. Third, don't stop the use of "soft money"--the $81 million in contributions to federal candidates that circumvented federal limits last year by passing through loosely regulated state parties --merely record it publicly.
The person offering these proposals was no Republican. It was Elaine Kamarck of Bill Clinton's own launching pad, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).
In an example of Clinton's Kiss of the Spider Woman strategy--throw opposites in a cell together and see what comes out--Kamarck and Michael Waldman, who as head of Public Citizen's Congress Watch had advanced an aggressive agenda for taming moneyed interests, were appointed Clinton's advisers on campaign finance reform.
The Spider Woman approach can yield policy that gives everyone a little something. But campaign finance reform is not a policy problem. It's a corruption problem, and you don't finesse corruption. Unfortunately, the most pernicious form of corruption--soft money--is the one, sources say, that Kamarck and other key Clintonites (like Mickey Kantor and Rahm Emanuel) are least interested in tackling now that they've milked it for record amounts of cash.
The other major obstacle is, of course, Congress, which will have to vote on its own rehabilitation regimen. Specifically, Democrats like Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, who in one day collected some $35,000 from rich trial lawyers, and who happens to oppose changing liability laws. Or ready-to-filibuster Republicans like Senator Arlen Specter, who last winter threw a Bring Your Own Thousand Dollars dinner party at his house for Northrop, Raytheon, Textron, Boeing, and other weapons makers.
The Clinton brain trust reportedly stays up late wondering whether they should upset Congress with an unpleasant campaign reform bill. They'd better.
If they wimp out on campaign reform, any bold policy initiatives, from health care to deficit-widening "investment," are likely to be met with public cynicism. Besides, without unclenching the grip of special interest money on Congress, they can forget challenging the medical system. The insurance industry alone has slid over $21.5 million under Congress's door since 1985.
Pessimistic sources worry that instead of taking the lead on reform, Clinton will let Congress write an even more watered-down version of the package that Bush vetoed last year. Instead, he should shame Congress into voting for a bill that 1) gives candidates free airwave access; 2) outlaws soft money; 3) slashes PAC and individual contribution limits by more than half; and 4) fills the resulting money vacuum with near-full public funding of not only congressional races but state political parties as well.
The tab (well under a billion dollars) could be paid by ending free postage for incumbents' self-promotional mailings ($100 million); eliminating the tax deduction for lobbying expenses (another $100 million); and reducing the 80 percent entertainment expense deduction, well-used by lobbyists, to 75 percent ($600 million more). Since the Lobbyist Lobby already underwrites American politics (the top contributing group for both Bush and Clinton was "lobbyists/lawyers"), let them do it with strings snipped.
One more imperative: turn the toothless general counsel to the Federal Election Commission into a pit bull with powers to subpoena and prosecute.
According to Donna Edwards, staff attorney at Congress Watch, "Clinton came in promising to change the status quo, the scandals and abuse of power that disgusted voters. If he deals with campaign finance reform early and meaningfully, he will set the tone for the presidency." And if he doesn't, he'll prove the adage: Nothing can so alienate a voter from the political system as backing a winning candidate.