Hogs in the Creek

When organizers of the Alliance for Democracy meeting in the Texas Hill Country this past month considered how they would get the word out to fellow progressive populists around the country, they quickly concluded that the corporate-controlled media would be no help and if anything are an obstacle to restoring democracy.

There is an old populist saying that you have to get the hogs out of the creek before the water will clear up. That adage applies to campaign finance corruption and the big corporations and special interests that have made politicians dependent upon their money.

The news media are supposed to keep the hogs out of the creek, but newspapers, radio and TV stations are increasingly controlled by corporate conglomerates that have little interest in encouraging a free and independent press. Certainly they have no interest in advancing populist economic issues or changing a political system that has worked quite well to increase their profits.

So how do we get the message out? An Alliance task force recommended using the mainstream media where possible, but it also proposed to use alternative media and new technologies such as e-mail and the Internet. It also recommended seeking ways to limit corporate censorship of due process, free speech and free assembly.

There is also the inescapable truth: All reform starts with campaign finance reform.

The First Amendment gives Americans the right to start up publications such as the Progressive Populist to challenge official orthodoxies, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. But we can't start up a TV station. "Congress shall make no law ... abridging freedom of speech, or of the press," but as historian Larry Goodwyn noted, "Of course Congress is always passing laws abridging freedom of speech." One of those laws allows the Federal Communication Commission to grant private companies the use of public airwaves.

Perhaps some practical limits on who can broadcast are necessary, but have you ever considered the windfall that broadcast companies get for the exclusive use of nominally public airwaves? Not only do these private companies have the airwaves franchise and the federal government limits their competition, but the feds also have waived the fairness doctrine that once required broadcasters to at least air opposing views. Now Congress has further relaxed the limits on how many stations a media conglomerate can own.

Broadcast companies collected an estimated $47.6 billion for TV and radio air time in 1995. Yet for the right to make handsome profits, broadcast corporations pay only modest annual fees to cover regulatory costs. Fees for TV stations run from $2,500 in the smallest markets to $32,000 for VHF stations in the top 10 markets. Radio stations pay $345 for the smallest stations to $1,250 for clear-channels.

Now the broadcasters want the feds to hand over another spectrum free of charge so they can make more money off digital TV. The National Association of Broadcasters so far has beaten back efforts to auction off those airwaves, which could raise as much as $100 billion for the federal treasury.

At the same time, the Republican Congress has cut back sharply on funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and is requiring public radio and TV to depend more upon corporate sponsors to pay for their broadcasts.

Ultimately, we should strictly enforce antitrust laws and beef them up if necessary to break up media conglomerates and ensure the multiplicity of free voices upon which democracy depends. But that won't happen as long as politicians are indebted to the corporations that finance their elections.

So campaign finance reform is the necessary first step. And the people are demanding it: A survey conducted for the Center for Responsive Politics in August -- before the Democratic campaign fundraising scandal broke -- found that 68% of voters supported a public financing program similar to one that was adopted by Maine voters on November 5. And the 40-percent margin of support for public financing was bipartisan.

The Maine referendum adopted the Maine Clean Election Act, which establishes a publicly financed campaign fund for candidates who agree to limit contributions -- in Maine's case to $50,000 for governor, $1,500 for State Senate and $500 for State House. To qualify for public funds, a candidate for governor must have financial contributions from 2,500 registered voters. Senate candidates must get 150 contributions and House candidates 50.

The Maine law provides for qualifying candidates to receive campaign financing based on the average spent on previous campaigns. If an opposing candidate does not agree to the spending limits, the qualifying candidate can get up to twice the regular allocation. The fund will be financed by cuts in the legislative and executive budgets and increases in lobbyist fees.

The Working Group on Electoral Democracy, an association of grassroots organizers and researchers, has drafted a proposal for democratically financed elections which would practically eliminate all private financial contributions -- from individuals and political action committees -- in both primaries and general elections. Eligibility for public financing would be based on the candidate's ability to raise a relatively high number of five-dollar qualifying contributions within his or her district or state (for example, 1,000 individual contributions for a U.S. representative candidate) so the system would favor candidates with actual grassroots support over those with access to ready money. Free broadcast media time would be made available to candidates who qualify for public financing, but they would have to accept format restrictions designed to increase the accountability and substance of radio and TV advertisements. Participation in debates would be required.

These proposals would not solve the problem of "soft money," where PACs affiliated with political parties or groups such as the AFL-CIO or the National Association of Business air their own "attack ads" against candidates. But they would allow cash-poor candidates to mount a respectable race without selling out to special interests, as they must under the current system. And the Working Group proposal would place a $100 limit per person on contributions to political parties, which are currently unrestricted, and it prohibit congressional candidates from receiving direct contributions from parties.

The Working Group estimates the cost of publicly financed congressional elections at $500 million annually, compared with more than $800 million that was spent on this year's congressional races.

One potential sticking point is where the money would come from for publicly financed campaigns. That's where the tax on broadcast advertising comes in.

A broadcast tax of 10% would raise $4.76 billion. That would allow the federal government to pay for federal races and provide a like amount in grants for similar programs at the state level. It also would allow restoration of the $55 million taken from public broadcasting last year (perhaps it could even take public broadcasting off the corporate dole). And $3.5 billion would be left for other needy programs and/or working-class tax relief.

We should demand more from the broadcasters who are allowed to profit from the public airwaves.
Don't expect any reform out of this Republican Congress. House Speaker Newt Gingrich dismisses any criticism of the harmful effect of big money on democracy as a "nonsensical socialist analysis based on hatred of the free enterprise system" while Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who led the filibuster that killed an attempt at bipartisan campaign finance reform this past summer, has vowed to kill any more such attempts. The bill, sponsored by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), promised discounts on broadcast time and mailings for candidates who voluntarily limited their fundraising, and would have limited contributions from PACs and "soft money" contributions to political parties, but 45 Republicans and one Democrat upheld McConnell's filibuster last June.

Don't expect meaningful reform out of the Clinton White House, for that matter. It will take a new Congress and a president who admits the system is broken far worse than Clinton has admitted so far. Now is the time to start agitating to get the hogs out of the creek.

For more information on campaign finance, contact:

· Center for Responsive Politics, 1320 19th St. NW, Ste. 700, Washington, D.C. 20036, 202-857-0044; e-mail .

· Common Cause, 2030 M St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036; 202-833-1200; e-mail .

· Working Group on Electoral Democracy, 70 Washington St., Brattleboro, VT 05301, 314-531-1559; e-mail .

Also check out activist Ed Garvey's views on campaign finance reform in this issue on page 21.

Social Security Repairs

We are seeing many proposals to "reform" Social Security, given the possible shortfall of retirement funds for the Baby Boom generation, with suggestions that benefits be cut back, that Social Security investments be privatized or that the payroll tax be increased. There has been little attention paid to the very sensible suggestion made by our columnist, Joel D. Joseph, this past June to eliminate the ceiling on taxes for the wealthy that costs the trust fund $64 million a year.

Currently, Social Security taxes are the most regressive taxes we have. For someone earning $15,000 per year, the Social Security tax bites $2,245, with half paid by the employee and half by the employer. But Social Security taxes are imposed only on the first $60,600 of wages. Those earning one million dollars or more per year pay no more in Social Security taxes than a taxpayer earning $61,000 annually. By eliminating the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security taxes, the Tax Foundation estimates that we would raise $64 billion in new revenues. We could even exempt the first $15,000 of income for both workers and employers, which would cost the U.S. Treasury $40 billion, and the Treasury would still have a $24 billion surplus to help close the projected shortfall in the Social Security trust fund.

Also, Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer has noted that the projected Social Security shortfall assumes that the economy will grow an average of 1.5 percent a year (after inflation) for the next 75 years -- half the rate of the previous 75 years. If the economy grew at a peppier 2.2 percent rate, still slower than the 75-year average, the system remains solvent indefinitely.

-- Jim Cullen

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1995-1996 The Progressive Populist