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Time-out to win back government

There will be no campaign finance reform this year. On March 30, the Republican House leadership used some crude sleight-of-hand to keep a bipartisan bill -- flawed and grossly inadequate but the best U.S. citizens were likely to get for now -- from coming to a vote.

In other words, our government continues to be bought and sold.

In the Senate it was called the McCain-Feingold Bill. A majority voted to pass it, but the leaders killed it by filibuster. In the House it was called the Shays-Meehan Bill and was aborted even earlier by “parliamentary moves.”

Polls say the people are disgusted both by campaign finance abuse and politicians’ refusal to do anything about it. Many Republicans as well as Democrats condemned this most recent betrayal of the will of the people. A great flutter of words rose and fell as this big-money scandal grew wider and deeper. NCR editorialized at least twice last year. “When a nation’s politicians are for sale, the nation is rotting from within,” we wrote last Oct. 3. “Simply put, our politics is being purchased shamelessly,” we wrote Oct. 24.

The words eventually have a tinny sound. One Democrat compared the Newt Gingrich-Trent Lott shenanigans to the Stalin days, but no one believes that. Heck no, we think, it’s just the politicians playing politics. Like saying boys will be boys. Outrage is now outmoded. Shame is a quaint relic.

Hard to say what it would take to move the nation to, say, a state of gospel charity. Or, if the gospel is not your bag, even to the state of natural fairness and goodness that reason and our better nature tell us in quiet moments is how we were meant to be and would want to be if it didn’t cost us too much. Instead of this savage selfishness.

This is not just a game. It’s most of us being ripped off by a few. It’s fat cats and lobbyists buying politicians, then taking what is best in the nation -- lawfully -- without being entitled to it. These are the tin words. Corruption. Greed. There are plenty of real life stories to put flesh and blood on the tin words.

And all the time we boast about democracy as if we had invented it -- we who so seldom bother to vote. As Clintonite James Carville so bluntly put it, “It’s the economy, stupid.” We’re wallowing in prosperity. It doesn’t matter whether Clinton’s sins are real or invented by the right -- we never had it so good. Let the good times roll.

But it’s not a noble life. Even the fat cats and crassest politicians must realize this when they pause for reflection. Fairness and humanity are voices that must whisper at times even in the most craven life. There is potential here.

When great rights and wrongs are at stake, this country has repeatedly risen to the occasion. Even a monster as unwieldy as U.S. society can gradually be stopped in its tracks, then reversed. It happened on big issues like civil rights or the Vietnam War -- always up to a point, of course, in our shaky human condition -- and on a host of everyday issues. It is possible to wake the sleeping giant.

It has been noted that people are behaving badly because there are no more exalted wars to win. It has also been said that the do-gooders, who might be liberal, conservative or something else entirely, are bereft of a cause worthy of their aspirations and abilities, resulting in frequent inertia and ennui.

Before, there were godless communists to be fought, or nukes to be fought, or racism, or other major woes. Now, we seem to be in a valley and becalmed.

This may be the moment to grasp the moment. Time for the old leaders and the new leaders to come together and forge a fresh vision. There is a great opportunity here. While our government is for sale to the highest bidder, all our values are stunted and our very identity smudged.

Time for a time-out: We suggest that all the individuals and groups who have championed human rights, peace, justice, compassion -- in short the virtues and ideals most valued among us -- we suggest they all come together for a two-year campaign, putting lesser agendas on hold, to wake the sleeping giant. We all have faxes, E-mails, newsletters, all geared to go, we all know how to reach each other.

Time-out to make campaign finance a crusade. Campaign money may sound too crass and dirty to deal with, but in its ramifications, campaign reform could be a holy cause. Until the government is given back to the people, we are all worth less, all less effective in whatever good we wish to do in our lifetimes.

Such a crusade could serve notice on the new millennium that the best is yet to be.

National Catholic Reporter, April 10, 1998