Citizens' Revolt

Frustrated by a coin-operated Congress that has little interest in--or reason to--reform, citizens are taking matters into their own hands by placing initiatives on state ballots that effectively bypass their lawmakers:

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  • In a closely watched case, more than 725,000 Californians signed a petition to qualify a single-payer health care initiative for the November ballot. Ignoring the mangled Clinton plan and defyyng the insurance industry's relentless lobbying against any kind of health reform, voters will decide if the state should set up a Canadian-style system. In view of lobbyists' power over lawmakers, "the only avenue open is to take single payer direcdly to the voter," says Glen Schneider, chair of Californians for Health Security, the group organizing the single-payer drive. "With the legislature, it's only 120 votes [special interests] need to control," he notes. "But controlling 8 million votes [expected to be cast in November] is a lot harder."
  • Reformers are also using ballot measures to get big money out of politics. Petitions in Colorado, Missouri, Montana, and Oregon press for sharp limits on campaign contributions from individuals, interest groups, and PACs. In 1992, Washington, D.C., voters decided overwhelmingly to enact a $100 limit on campaign contributions. This year's candidates for mayor, city council, and other seats are bound by these rules.
  • Advocates of term limits point to Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill.: the 18-term congressman, indicted on 17 counts of public corruption, epitomizes the arrogance that career politiccans can develop. Voters in five states will consider congressional term limits this fall. Some courts, however, have ruled that term limits are unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court will review the issue during its next session.
Why are these bottom-up reform efforts proliferating? "People are angry about government's inability to work for real people," says Donna Edwards of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for a New Democracy. "That anger is being transmitte d to the state level in part because of frustrations with the way Congress has chosen not to deal with reform." She predicts that citizen-sponsored reforms will create models for change, "so that inevitably Congress won't have a choice. They'll be bullied into reform."