As you watch political ads on TV in the final days before the Nov. 7 election, think money.
Big money. Campaign spending this year is out of control. Influence-buying in campaigns is nothing less than colossal.
Some $3 billion will likely be spent on this year's federal campaigns. The exact figure won't be known until after the election; many big donors are only now quietly opening their checkbooks, hoping to duck under the public radar screen. Still, that estimate would mean a 50 percent increase from just four years ago.
But ironically, this election may offer a chance to do something about this corrosion of democracy.
The 'soft' loophole
Many voters shrug off the problem as a fixed part of the political landscape. They think Democrats and Republicans will never agree on any sweeping reform, despite lip-service promises from candidates.
But the problem is hard to ignore when it's getting worse - fast.
The so-called "soft money" contributions (unlimited amounts that go to the parties from corporations, unions, and other special interests, including wealthy individuals) have doubled since 1996. Those wealthy individuals who contribute are only about 1/20th of 1 percent of the population.
The good news is that "hard money" contributions - those with strict contribution limits - are running about the same level as four years ago.
An instructive example of how money can influence Congress comes from the computer industry, which has risen quickly in the ranks of the top 100 organizational donors to 8th from a low 55th 10 years ago.
For its generosity, high-tech firms recently won the right to import more foreign workers.
Choosing the right candidate
Electing candidates who are sincere in promising campaign-finance reform - and more of them are being forced to speak about it - has become more crucial. Too many candidates throw their hands up at a system that calls for expensive advertising to reach busier, more-apathetic voters.
Past attempts to curb campaign donations and spending have run into questions of whether such measures violate free speech. The Supreme Court will take up a case on this issue in its current term, and its decision may influence what Congress does on campaign-finance reform.
What else can be done?
The press and the public can keep track of the connection between money and decisionmaking. That includes diligent over-the-shoulder monitoring of representatives in Congress, especially now that the ability to discover this information is just a few computer clicks away.
One piece of legislation, known as the Shays-Meehan bill, has some encouraging elements. But Congress will likely tackle this giant issue in piecemeal fashion.
It can set more-reasonable contribution limits, mandate free TV time for candidates, zero in on accountability through instant disclosure of contributions on the Internet, and tighten the loose rules regarding so-called "issue ads."
Measures that decrease the existing co-dependency between politicians, money, and legislation can only help to strengthen our democracy, equalize voters' influence, and allow us to promote our system abroad with integrity.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society