Campaign-finance scandals dominate the headlines. Public sentiment for reform is at its highest level since the Watergate era. Yet it seems like the opposition to reform this year is bolder, and the odds are getting longer. Even the McCain-Feingold bill, which many reformers characterize as only a weak first step, faces heated and determined opposition. Free marketeers aligned with the ACLU and the Christian Right denounce attempts to reform the loophole-ridden, corruption-breeding system we now live with as attacks on the sacred right of free speech.
It is no longer laughable in Congress to talk about getting rid of all limits on campaign contributions. "The reforms enacted after Watergate failed," critics say. "Let's just get rid of all restrictions, disclose everything, and let the public decide." That such a proposal gets a respectful hearing in Congress and on the editorial pages of major dailies shows how far the debate has moved.
Now, more than ever, progressives need to make federal campaign-finance reform a priority. And while it is important to keep long-term goals in mind, incremental solutions may offer our best chance to make progress toward more sweeping change. Giving up altogether is simply not an option, unless we don't care that the public thinks Congress is up for auction, that voter turnout is at an all-time low, and that corporate money drowns out the voices of average people both in the legislature and on the campaign trail.
The simple reason why we need campaign-finance reform is that money influences policy.
The players are different, the legislative issues come and go. But the one constant in our political system is the need for money. Lots of it. Candidate and party spending in the 1996 elections topped $2 billion. Hundreds of millions more were spent in unreported "issue ads." The constant search for funding to run campaigns costs us dearly. Candidates and elected officials spend inordinate amounts of time raising money, and the pressure to cross the line into improper or even illegal activity can test the resolve of even the most ethical politicians.
It would be one thing if the people with big money to spend on elections were merely civic-minded or disinterested rich people, or even just wealthy ideologues from across the political spectrum, but they're not. Nor does a broad cross-section of the public make political contributions. Less than one-third of 1 percent of the population gave contributions totaling more than $200 in the 1996 election. A huge proportion of the campaign cash that politicians raise comes from business interests, giving them special access to and influence over the legislative process.
Take two major policy debates of the last two Congresses: health care and the new telecommunications law.
Remember the Clinton plan? Thirty-seven million Americans with no insurance? Harry and Louise? The Democrats squabbled, the Republicans obstructed, and the legislation imploded.
During the ill-fated health-care debate, campaign money flowed freely from those with an economic interest in shaping the legislation. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, individuals and PACs associated with the health industry (including doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, HMOs, and drug companies) made more than $37 million in contributions to candidates, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. The American Medical Association alone contributed more than $2.5 million. At least sixty members of Congress who sat on one of the five committees with jurisdiction over the healthcare legislation received more than $50,000 in contributions from these health-industry PACs and individuals.
In the end, opponents of reform won. Today, the number of uninsured Americans is more than forty million, and the corporatization of our health-care system continues unabated.
Fast-forward to the next …