Hard money. Soft money. The rot from within
When a nation's politicians are for sale, the nation is rotting from within. We can succumb to the prevailing cynicism and say politicians were and always will be for sale, but the United States in the late 20th century has reached a new level in one particular regard: the extent to which corruption is taken for granted by politicians and population alike. As if nothing could be done.
The ethically challenged range all the way from President Clinton to a politician near you, as the daily headlines remind us. The politicians respond they "did nothing wrong." The phrase sounded pathetically lame when the reviled President Nixon tried it, but it is now shorthand for "you can't put me in jail."
The debate is about little legalities and rules, distinctions between "hard" and "soft" money, trivia. Tip of the iceberg? A better metaphor might be that people are looking at the scum on the surface because no one seems to have the courage to look deeper down in the cesspool at how politically sick we are.
Both common sense and the polls make clear that people do care. Citizens of these United States have a refined sense of fairness. They hate being ripped off. This urge to integrity and justice is thwarted in our time by the very complications of civil society. Folks feel that nothing can be done and get disheartened. But the politicians should beware: Sometimes disheartened people take heart and stand on their hind legs and say the stench reaches so high it needs to be dealt with.
Some of that impatience is now in the air. Politicians who ignore that impatience may have years to regret their refusal to heed the noble impulse to do the decent thing, uphold the common good. Politicians are not all craven. Apart from fearing for their own political skins, they must in their better moments want to leave a more worthy legacy than the political morass of 1997.
The outcome of citizen dissatisfaction and ferment, if any, may be a half-measure, but it would be a start.
The most promising initiative for campaign finance reform is that of Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis. Its most forceful opponent is Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whose laughable argument is that to put limitations on raising money is to limit politicians' free speech as granted by the First Amendment.
All of the 45 Democrats in the Senate are committed to the passage of the Feingold-McCain bill, but only three Republicans have endorsed it. The measure has already been watered down. It no longer contains ceilings on financial contributions to the election of senators. But even if only soft money were banned, it would be the most important reform in campaign financing in a generation. Such a ban would eliminate the independent spending that, camouflaged as campaigns on particular issues, in essence finances pleas for Democrat or Republican candidates.
Common Cause, the citizens' lobby founded in 1970 by John Gardner, a Republican cabinet member in the Eisenhower administration, has lobbied vigorously for campaign finance reform for more than 20 years. Its arduous work may be about to achieve at least a partial victory, but such a result is by no means certain.
Religious groups in America have generally been reluctant to enter the fray over political spending. But the spectacle of massive, uncontrolled spending on the presidential and congressional races in 1996 has so shocked the electorate that even the churches may become active on this issue. Their intervention would be welcome.
The contest in the United States Senate over the financing of elections is a struggle over raw political power. It is a fight for control, for dominance, for survival.
The insistent voice of Common Cause and a rising chorus of exasperated citizens has finally moved the Senate into action. But an articulate, angry electorate is still necessary if the Feingold-McCain bill in any form is to be enacted.
A moment of victory for the people over its politicians would be a welcome gift for Christmas.
National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 1997