For 220 years now, Americans have aspired to a government of the people, by the people, for the people. In fact, we have turned campaigns into auctions and politicians into indentured servants who conduct government for the benefit of campaign donors.
The two major party conventions were underwritten by America's largest corporations. Donors were rewarded with access to candidates at private parties, yacht cruises, and receptions. Money always talks - but this year it's screaming.
Is it any wonder that Congress is unable to take on these same special interests when it comes time to balance the budget, protect the environment, or make the tough choices needed to prepare for the 21st century?
Funders as kingmakers
Money has become the dominant factor in deciding who runs for office, who wins elections, and who has influence and power after the vote. Many of our finest leaders don't run for public office, either because they can't raise the money or because they refuse to cater to big money. Far too often, campaign funders play the role of kingmakers, deciding which candidates will be viable long before the voters get their say.
Once the field is narrowed to those with personal wealth or special-interest cash, the winner is usually determined by who spends the most. In the past two congressional elections, the average winner spent more than twice as much as the average loser. Before Congress votes on a single bill, wealthy interests ensure sympathetic politicians will be in office. Corruption starts long before the Constitution's checks and balances can come into play.
After the election donors reap special access to members of Congress. Sometimes lobbyists are invited to draft legislation to benefit their clients, as in the attempted rewriting of the Clean Water Act by polluters last year.
Rarely do special interests need to explicitly swap contributions for votes. Big money has already influenced who does the voting and what they will vote on. But lobbyists aren't above using money as leverage. Until recently exposed, politicians had no qualms about handing out tobacco PAC checks to their colleagues on the floor of Congress.
'We all sell what we have'
As a corporate lobbyist boasted: "That's how Congress works. We buy them. That's what they have to sell. We all make out by selling what we have to sell. Then, they pretend they're doing it for the public good."
Doesn't sound much like what the founders of our country had in mind. It's high time to get serious about restoring democracy to a system where people control government, not money. We must pass a constitutional amendment to allow Congress and the states to set mandatory limits on campaign spending, contributions, and use of personal wealth.
Why such serious measures? Couldn't Congress pass legislation to handle this problem? Unfortunately not. Congress did set limits on campaign spending and use of personal wealth in 1974. However, the Supreme Court, in a controversial and misguided ruling, struck down the law, claiming that to limit money in politics was to limit free speech. Since then, voters in several states have used ballot initiatives limiting contributions to $100 or requiring candidates to raise all or most funds within the districts they represent. These common-sense efforts, too, face uphill challenges in the courts.
When we equate money with speech, then speech is no longer free. The right to speak out becomes available only to those who can afford it. That's what is happening in America and it's wrong. We're becoming less and less a democracy, and more and more a special-interest state.
How best to fix things?
How best to fix things? There is a host of ideas:
*Providing candidates with substantial free and reduced-cost access to TV, radio, and mailings;
*Creating a national voter initiative and referendum process to get around congressional self-interest in saving the status quo;
*Setting contribution limits and restricting out-of-district contributions.
There are those who argue for reforms that don't conflict with bad court decisions.
However, we're kidding ourselves if we think we can dance around the absurd notion that money equals speech and therefore can't be limited.
We must take down the "For Sale" sign on Capitol Hill. Any serious reform proposal must start with a constitutional amendment to allow the states and Congress to craft measures that would take government out of the pockets of special interests and put it back into the hands of the people. There can be no meaningful reform unless we're willing to limit money in politics.
*Richard Lamm, a three -term governor of Colorado, is currently a professor of public policy at the University of Denver. Derek Cressman directs Americans Against Political Corruption, a campaign of the state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs)