It's a dollars and sense issue. The more dollars you have, the more sense you make -- or at least the more noise you have the ability to make.
And that's the problem. Money has become the controlling feature of our national political life and fund-raising has become our politicians' principal activity and is contributing to the public's diminishing respect for its government.
A number of organizations across the country are trying to change that. The American Civil Liberties Union and Public Citizen are pushing for full public financing of elections. The various state Public Interest Research Groups are seeking to place severe limits on what can be spent and the amount individuals can give to candidates. And Common Cause is seeking to end the influence of political action committees. Other groups are pushing for proportional representation, for initiative and referendum, for free television time for candidates and a hose of other fixes designed to return our elections to the voters.
At the state level, these organizations and many other are working to build a grassroots network that can create generate the moral impetus for charge.
In New Jersey, Common Cause is taking the lead. The organization -- with some help from the League of Women Voters -- has drafted two model "clean government" ordinances that it hopes will generate interest in reforming the way we pay for our elections. The first, which would obligate developers as part of their disclosure requirements to say how much money they had given to local political parties, has been approved in four towns, while the second, a ban on fund-raising on public property, is now law in 15.
The ordinances are not panaceas. They will not clean up elections and Common Cause and the League of Women Voters accept this. Common Cause is hoping the campaign for the ordinances will create a "Citizens' Army" that will create the impetus for wider-ranging reforms. In its mission statement, Common Cause says it wants "to push back the influence of special interest money while advancing the influence of citizens in setting our governments' agenda. Campaign finance reform has failed at the State and Federal level of government. Our strategy is to begin at level of government still accessible to us, our hometown councils, and work from the bottom up."
The idea is to have residents put the organization's draft ordinances before as many towns as possible, to attract media attention and draw more residents to the fight.
Let's hope this works. There are a lot of reasons why people have lost trust in their government -- they don't feel connected, don't feel government is looking out for their interests, etc. -- and it is important not to dismiss these concerns.
But it seems hard to overlook the impact of what author, radio host and Progressive Populist columnist Jim Hightower refers to as legal bribery.
Election turnout has been falling -- fewer people voted in the 1996 presidential election than in 1992 and the 1998 Congressional elections drew just 36 percent to the polls, down from 38 percent in 1994.
And polling numbers consistently show that the public is concerned about the impact campaign money has on policy. An October Newsweek poll found that 90 percent of its respondents believed that the influence political contributions have on elections and government policy was either a major problem or somewhat of a problem. During the same month, a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found that 90 percent of its respondents favored at least minor changes in the financing of campaigns.
And yet, there is little movement in Congress for change. The McCain-Feingold reform bill, which would limit contributions to candidates from political action committees, lies dormant in the Senate and more than 100 other campaign reform bills have managed to die earlier in the process.
Still, the money keeps coming. The combined spending of presidential candidates in 1996 topped $471 million -- up 41 percent from the $334.6 million spent in 1992. The same trend was apparent in Congress, with candidates spending $765.3 million in 1996, up 12.5 percent from the $680.3 million spent by congressional candidates in 1992.
This year's presidential election is expected to cost more than any other in history. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington watchdog group, the eight officially declared candidates had raised $190.3 million through December, with Republican George W. Bush raising $67.6 million -- or more than a third of the total.
So what's the solution? Simple: Take private money out of the mix.
There are a number of plans remain on the table. PIRG, for instance, favors a five-point approach: Allow no more 25 percent of a candidate's funding to come from outside his district; limit campaign spending with a constitutional amendment; limit campaign contributions to $100 per person -- a level it says ordinary people can afford; provide candidates with substantial free and reduced-cost TV, radio, and mailings; allow citizens to vote directly on national issues via initiative and referendum.
More effective would be a voluntary system of public financing tied to free television time. As outlined by the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Citizen, money and TV time would be granted to candidates who raised a threshold amount of small contributions, most likely less than $250. In exchange for public money, candidates would agree to limit their spending and the amount they could raise privately.
Candidates who opted out of the system would have to explain why -- and face questions regarding the kinds of influence their donors might have on legislation.
Unfortunately, the public does not appear ready to back public financing -- only 37 percent of the public favor such a scheme, according to a CBS News poll from July -- and incremental change may be all we have available.
Which is why campaigns like the one being waged by N.J. Common Cause and the League of Women Voters are important. If they can be successful in generating real energy at the grassroots level, then maybe, just maybe, we have a chance to end the barter system we call politics as usual.
The Center for Responsive Politics, 1320 Nineteenth Street, NW, Suite 620, Washington, DC 20036; phone 202-857-0044; Web www.opensecrets.org.
Center for Voting and Democracy, 6930 Carroll Ave., Suite 901, Takoma Park, MD 20912; phone 301-270-4616; Web www.igc.org/cvd.
Common Cause 1250 Connecticut Avenue, NW #600, Washington, DC 20036; phone 202-833-1200; Web www.commoncause.org.
Public Campaign, 1320 19th Street, NW, Suite M-1, Washington, D.C. 20036; phone 202-293-0222; www.publicampaign.org.
State U.S. Public Interest Research Groups can be reached via their Web site at www.pirg.org.
Hank Kalet is a journalist living in South Brunswick, N.J.