True Election Reform

Changes must go beyond piecemeal Senate measure

`TO give the capital back to the people to whom it belongs," was President Clinton's challenge to Congress in his Inaugural address.

Thus far, it looks like Congress won't have the stomach for such a challenge and is leaning toward piecemeal changes that won't clean up the special-interest mess.

My own experience as a candidate in 1990 illustrates the problem. The "gatekeepers" of today's politics, big-money donors, weren't interested in my positions or experience. They only wanted to know if I could raise millions to run a media-driven campaign. They knew that big money talks - and that early money screams. Outspent almost 7 to 1, my election was a rare exception to this big-money rule that stifles countless promising candidacies.

It's not that members of Congress are dishonest. The problem is a more systemic corruption: auction-block democracy, where public policy is often sold (or at least rented) to the highest bidder.

Almost $500 million was contributed to congressional candidates in the 1992 elections. Without real campaign reform, attempts to restructure America's health-care system, create jobs, rebuild our cities, rationalize defense spending, and solve other pressing problems will remain gridlocked because legislators are dependent on campaign contributions from the special interests they regulate.

Thus, any reform enacted must be judged according to a basic standard: Does it effectively sever the money links between incumbent lawmakers and special interests seeking their votes? Or does it simply rechannel campaign contributions through yet more clever loopholes? In particular, reforms must limit the practice that most smacks of corruption, where incumbents solicit large amounts of money from lobbying coalitions of corporations and other special interests.

This year's reform debate has begun with last year's bill vetoed by President Bush - pretty thin gruel for Americans hungry for fundamental change. The bill, renamed S.3 again this year, only partially limits political action committee (PAC) contributions, "bundling" of individual donations to get around limits, and "soft money" contributions designed to circumvent federal limits. While the bill does establish a system in which candidates who agree to certain spending limits become eligible to receive lo w-cost mail and media vouchers, it does not go far enough. If Congress enacts this bill without changes, it likely will backfire. Such attempts to present piecemeal reform as fundamental change would intensify already high levels of voter anger and further erode public confidence in our democracy.

Genuine, fundamental campaign-finance reform must:

* Eliminate PAC participation in federal elections, set much stricter individual contribution and spending limits, close soft-money and bundling loopholes, and provide public financing only to candidates who get a majority of contributions from home-state constituents rather than from their "economic constituents."

* Limit individual contributions in a specified primary to no more than $100 (matched by public financing) so that candidates' fund-raising would encourage dialogue with ordinary constituents.

* In the general election, give major- party primary winners enough public financing so challengers can compete with incumbents on a level playing field.

* Set the qualifying threshold for public funding at a significant number of small in-state contributions, rather than a small number of large contributions, opening the system to more diverse candidates in terms of race, gender, and class.

A system to partially finance congressional campaigns with public funds, just as in presidential elections, could cost as much as $500 million annually. Reforms could be financed without increasing the deficit or cutting existing programs by: reducing or eliminating tax deductions for lobbyists; requiring media outlets to extend free airtime to candidates or to pay for airwave use; establishing a federal tax check-off system for congressional races; and cutting the deduction for business meal expenses.

CRITICS of reform note that many Americans don't want their tax dollars going for political campaigns. If public funding is presented polemically as "food stamps for politicians," this is true. But if asked whether they'd be willing to invest $5 to $10 annually to restore competitive elections, end the mortgaging of governance to big-money contributors, and restore representative democracy, Americans enthusiastically agree. A recent Greenberg-Lake poll found that 72 percent of respondents support extendi ng the presidential public financing system to House and Senate elections if the reform package includes limiting campaign spending and reducing individual and PAC contributions, funded by a voluntary tax check-off and new taxes on lobbyists.

Often overlooked are the actual costs to taxpayers and our democratic process of the current system. For a fraction of the estimated $500 billion it is costing to fix the damage done by savings-and-loan lobbyists who pressed for weakened thrift regulations, we could finance decades of honest, democratic elections.

This is the best time in two decades for fundamental reform, when we have a president committed to change, a Congress elected on pledges of change, and a citizenry angry enough to demand change.

Only public pressure will force Mr. Clinton's promised "revolution in government." We must restore the basic democratic principle of "one person, one vote" by enacting true reform.

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