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Speak up now for campaign finance reform

Make no mistake about it. Without serious campaign finance reform, democratic government, as we grew up understanding it, is a thing of the past.

Without changing the laws by which we elect our governing officials, that government, of which Abraham Lincoln so lovingly spoke, “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” is threatened.

It makes little sense to lobby for or against any piece of legislation when the elected officials who will consider the arguments are your representatives in name only. Too often today those “representatives” are owned by the relative few powerful and wealthy interests who contributed heavily to their campaigns.

Serious campaign finance reform is singularly the most important legislative issue facing congress this year. It is fundamental to all other legislation.

There is good news here. The protracted debates going on in the Senate are forcing a degree of casual honesty. It was difficult last week to find a single senator on any side of the campaign finance issue who would deny that big money has come to play an inordinate role in our electoral politics. There was a time when such open admissions would have sent the press into a frenzy of influence-peddling stories.

However, there was bad news, too. Much of what passes as “support” for reform in the senate is well crafted political posturing aimed at assuring serious reform will not occur: Load the bill, add those killer amendments, shift the focus -- all in the name of alleged reform. That’s the game that was being played by many senators and most recently by President Bush who has lately joined the fray in an attempt to derail reasonable reform efforts.

The truth is that many senators, even as they recognize the crumbling state of our delicate democratic processes, have grown tight and comfortable with the wealthy interests that elected them. Today there is little hope of wrestling back a government “of the people” from the millionaires and other powerful interests that control it. The only hope for reform comes in making our collective sense of outrage known in Washington.

Recent third-party candidacies were indications that citizens are fed up. Last year’s groundswell of support for Sen. John McCain’s candidacy was another indication. Campaign finance was the central issue of McCain’s unsuccessful Republican primary challenge against Bush.

Vested interests will not be budged easily.

The Senate last week took up the McCain-Feingold Bill. If enacted, it would ban “soft money” and would be a major step on the road to much needed campaign finance reform. The House approved measures similar to the McCain-Feingold bill in each of the last two years, but the bills died in the Senate where McCain and Feingold have been unable to muster the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster preventing a final vote. The balanced Senate now makes legislation possible. Besides banning “soft money,” the McCain-Feingold Bill would restrict political advertising by independent groups and enact greater disclosure requirements.

Critics say the bill’s limits on spending and issue advertising violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression. The contrary is true. It is the tidal wave of cash in the age of television advertising that has corrupted the system. The process by which our government officials get elected limits free speech and creates a lopsided playing field. Big money speaks. The rest of us sit on the sidelines and watch.

The results are clear. As The New York Times pointed out in a recent editorial: “It would be naïve to think that Congress’ recent rush to repeal work-safety regulations was not a response to the money that flowed from manufacturers, or that the opposition to limits on carbon dioxide emissions has nothing to do with donations from the mining and energy sectors.”

Simply put, if one does not have access to big money one does not get represented.

Although most of us have become far too politically marginalized, we have a moment to shove a foot in the door before it closes again. This is the time to mail those letters and work those telephones, faxes and e-mails. This is the moment to see whether democracy, slipping from our grasp, can be harnessed again before it is simply too late.

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001