Al Gore made a commendable step toward exorcising the legacy of those gift-bearing Buddhist nuns on March 27 when he embraced public financing of congressional elections. Unfortunately his initiative was too conservative and it was overshadowed a few days later by the embrace of the Castro haters who have made a fetish of keeping Elian Gonzalez from his father and his native Cuba.
Like his rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Gore is going after the reform voters who propelled Sen. John McCain in the recent Republican primaries. Unlike Bush, Gore actually is supporting efforts to remove the shakedown from federal politics. He would promote the McCain-Feingold bill that would ban "soft money' contributions to political parties, strengthen the Federal Election Commission and require full disclosure of independent expenditures and special-interest committees that funnel money into campaign advertising. He also proposed a "New Democracy Endowment," which would solicit donations with a goal of raising $7 billion within seven years to finance Senate and House general election campaigns for candidates who agree to accept no other contributions. Candidates would have access to funds according to a formula based on the Congressional District or state in which they were running.
In other elements of his reform initiative, Gore proposed to require Washington lobbyists to publicly disclose information on all of their activities -- such as the names of officials to whom lobbyists have contributed and the specific meetings they have attended to discuss legislation. The information would be posted on the Internet monthly.
He also proposed to require television broadcasters to give every candidate for federal office five minutes of airtime a night in the last 30 days before the general election. Broadcast stations that sell independent "attack" ads would be required to give free and equal airtime to candidates for federal office who are targeted by the ads.
Bush, whose idea of reform is to stop unions and trial lawyers from contributing to Democrats, belittled Gore's commitment to reforming the fund-raising practices of others. Bush also called Gore's plan "a government takeover that replaces individual spending decisions with decisions made by an unelected government committee.''
It apparently didn't bother Bush that National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Thomas Davis of Virginia reportedly shook down Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates during a recent closed-door meeting in the Capitol, telling the software multibillionaire, according to the Washington Post, that the GOP had not received enough "political support" from Microsoft.
At least Gore recognizes that there is a problem with the way politicians finance their elections. Even as he raised $2 million at six events in the weeks before he unveiled his campaign finance reform plan, Gore noted, "I understand the doubts about whether I personally am serious on campaign reform. And I understand all too well the irony of our current fund-raising system. Men and women of good intentions and high ideals want to protect the public interest, but have to raise private money in order to do so.''
The flaws in Gore's plan are easy to spot: It would finance only general election campaigns, requiring candidates to raise money from special interests during the primary election campaign. And in relying on private donations to fund the endowment, the federal government would still be going around to corporate executives, hat in hand, to raise the money.
Instead, Congress should slap a tax on TV and radio advertising. Commercials on radio and TV amounted to more than $58 billion in 1997. Congressional candidates and the political parties raised $1.5 billion during the 1998 election cycle and $3 billion may be spent this year when presidential campaigns are added in. A 10 percent tax on broadcast advertising would pay for the public financing of federal political campaigns -- both primaries and general election -- with money left over to help pay for state campaigns, public broadcasting and perhaps some other worthy initiatives.
Such a tax would allow honest people to run for office without soliciting the bribes that pass for campaign contributions under the current system, and public broadcasters could air programs without concern as to whether they might offend Archer Daniels Midland, Exxon/Mobil Oil, General Motors or other corporate sponsors.
Radio and TV stations are granted the rights to use "public" air waves free of charge and their corporate owners grow rich from those exclusive licenses. The public ought to benefit from their use.
The people will support fundamental campaign reform -- indeed the people are way ahead of Congress. A new national survey for Public Campaign found that more than two-thirds of the public favors comprehensive reform of the campaign finance system offering full public financing to candidates in both primary and general elections.
"By a margin of 68 to 19 percent, voters support the idea of full public financing -- Clean Money -- for federal elections as is the law already in Maine, Arizona, Vermont and Massachusetts," said Ellen S. Miller, president of Public Campaign, which advocates public financing of federal and state election campaigns. "This survey shows the public is still way ahead of the politicians in understanding that the system needs a complete overhaul, though some politicians are beginning to catch on."
Apologists for the current corrupt system found encouragement that "only" 36 percent of respondents identified "buying help from politicians with campaign contributions" as a top concern while 34 percent identified "politicians becoming corrupted by campaign contributions, perks, and favors from special interests." But that one-third of the electorate, if it turned out to vote for reform-minded candidates, could decide an election and put the lie to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell's disdainful assertion that nobody ever lost an election over campaign finance reform.
Under the Clean Money system, candidates who voluntarily agree to raise no private money and abide by spending limits would qualify for full public financing for their campaigns. Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Representative John Tierney (D-Mass.) have introduced federal bills modeled on this approach. So far they have failed to get hearings. In the meantime, the states are taking action and this November, voters in Missouri and Oregon will decide on Clean Money initiatives on their state ballots.
Voters must keep up the heat. Granny D will join the Democracy Brigades April 21 in a demonstration against the power of special interest money in our elections. Despite the constitutional protections for free speech and peaceable assembly, she expects to be arrested when she reads from the Declaration of Independence in the Capitol Rotunda. (see http://afd-online.org or phone the Alliance for Democracy, 781-894-1179, for details.) Do your part by demanding that candidates for Congress support public financing for candidates.
As this issue goes to press, thousands of activists are gathering in Washington, D.C., to protest the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, in the Mobilization for Global Justice, or what is being billed as the "Sequel to Seattle." Mark Weisbrot and Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman explain the issues on page 13. We will offer a more complete report in our next issue. In the meantime, you can find links to web sites reporting on the Mobilization through our Global Trade page online at www.populist.com/wto.html. -- JMC