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Campaign reform’s cry calls right to our souls

On Aug. 3, after months, indeed years, of debate and invective, campaign finance reform shuddered like the legendary mountain and brought forth a mouse.

The House passed a bipartisan bill, sponsored by Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., that would in effect ban the unlimited “soft money” now pouring into the coffers of both parties; that and some other modifications. It was, its sponsors said, a historic vote, yet even if it became law it would make only the smallest impression on the corruption that threatens to destroy this country’s political system.

Not that the bill is likely to become law. Those who voted for it did so in defiance of Republican leadership, especially that of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who have done everything possible to smother reform. In some old, innocent, never-never time, one would have expected such leaders to go down in infamy for contempt of the common good, but in these days of comfortable, even prosperous apathy, no one seems to care enough. There is little hope that the Senate will pass the bill.

Polls will continue to show that people want campaign finance reform. Politicians, even Lott and Gingrich, will continue to say they want reform. Fat cats, meanwhile, will pay huge sums of money to every politician worth buying. They will all play golf together, go to cocktail parties together, then turn up on Sunday morning TV to debate high-mindedly the right road to reform.

It is an astonishing display of contempt by less than 1 percent of the people of the United States for the other 99-odd percent. We need to keep telling ourselves, in however low a whisper, in however muted a voice, that this system stinks and that public life was not meant to be like this.

And guess what: If we keep saying it, the words might stick. The ideas behind the words might grow wings and start flying. Like the word of mouth that often gets books or movies off the ground.

The Republican leadership thought it had strangled reform some months ago when it used various crude maneuvers to kill a similar bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis. But the urge to reform refuses to die.

This bill is not about an arcane technicality or boondoggle. The subject hews close to the heart of life. Money is only money, and power is treacherous and temporary, but these rub off on our material beings so extensively that we are affected through and through, right through to our souls.

While most of the time we respond pathetically like sheep, now and again the spiritual side of us can stand it no longer. The psyche then speaks out. People talk to each other. That’s when things happen. More often than not, these happenings take us by surprise. Great big surprising upheavals happen. Such was the collapse of communism -- out of the blue as far as most of us were concerned. Such was the arrival of peace, however precarious, in South Africa, Northern Ireland, El Salvador. Events whose time had come. There was a natural rightness to them.

When we strip away the Sunday morning political talk, the political rot that rules so much of our lives may demand a similar upending of the status quo. The unequal distribution of life’s goods is straining the world. This may not be, despite the politicians’ cynicism and the people’s apathy, the right time for business as usual.

We need to keep saying it. And what we keep saying will creep deeper into our psyche as well as into the polls. It is time to end the political rot, starting with campaign finance reform, we need to keep saying. The words will trickle down. They have already trickled quite a bit.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998