Crocs in the Creek

Campaign finance reform reached a high-water mark of 51 votes in the U.S. Senate on February 26. Of course that majority was not enough to overcome the entrenched opposition of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Sen. Mitch McConnell.

In the Senate, where it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, Republicans were crying crocodile tears about preserving "free speech" for big spenders, and they were determined to keep the fundraising advantage over the Democrats, or any populist political movement.

Ironically, the McCain-Feingold bill already had been watered down. The measure would have simply closed some loopholes involving "soft money" and reined in last-minute "attack ads." It would have allowed plenty of excesses to continue. But even those reforms were too much for the corporate-sponsored right wing, which has access to more cash than Croesus. Only seven Republicans could be persuaded to join the Democrats in support of the bill.

McConnell has been at the forefront of efforts to maintain the status quo. He argued that the McCain-Feingold represented an unconstitutional infringement on free speech rights, although neither he nor Lott has been recognized as much of an advocate of free speech for poor people. "The Supreme Court has appropriately recognized that in order to have effective speech you have to amplify your voice," McConnell said.

There you have it: Free speech for rich people.

As Ellen Miller of Public Campaign, a public interest group advocating public funding of political campaigns, wrote, "McConnell's ability to hold together a solid 48 members of the GOP against McCain-Feingold was helped enormously by the fact that he controls the National Republican Senatorial Committee which has raised a whopping $24.4 million in 1997, including an unprecedented $9.4 million in soft money -- four times the soft money they raised in 1993. ... The sweet sound of money was the background music for the McCain-Feingold debate."

Later, McConnell was openly contemptuous of the reformers. "No one in the history of American politics has ever won or lost a campaign on the subject of campaign finance reform," he said.

The good news was that 54 votes turned up to defeat Lott's substitute bill that would have required unions to get written permission from each member before their dues could be used for political purposes. Lott proposed no such restraint upon corporations. Similar initiatives are underway in California and at least 14 other states in a Republican effort to tie up the resources of organized labor, which normally supports Democrats. Whether or not you believe that union leaders should be more accountable to their members, we don't think disarming the unions is a good idea.

The Senate inaction on campaign reform makes it clear that incumbents in Washington are not going to willingly dismantle a system that works quite well at getting them re-elected. Voters must demand that their representatives pass a Clean Money Campaign Reform law, similar to bills passed in Maine and Vermont and under consideration in other states. Under those bills, candidates at the state level who agree to take no private money and abide by strict spending limits would receive public funding for their campaigns.

Campaign finance reformers will have to reframe the debate away from free speech, as embraced by those crocodiles in the Senate, to free and fair elections by asking to what extent public officials should be dependent on wealthy, special interest donors to finance their campaigns.

The cost of implementing Clean Money Campaigns in congressional elections is estimated by Public Campaign at approximately $1.3 billion per election cycle. Approximately $846 million would go to House races and $472 million toward Senate races.

Public Campaign proposes that Congress come up with the revenue with a combination of $5 qualifying contributions collected by participating candidates, voluntary contributions from citizens and direct appropriations by Congress. We think that any program with a $1.3 billion price tag will be a non-starter unless a painless tax can be found. We think we have one in a tax on broadcast commercials. (See page 12.)

The following 48 senators voted to block campaign finance reform. They voted that way because they thought they could get away with it. If one of them is your senator, call them at 202-224-3121 or toll-free at 1-800-522-6721 or 1-800-504-0031 and tell them how you feel. Ten of them, noted with "98," are up for re-election this year. If any of them are defeated -- or even get a close run for their money -- it would be a great statement for true campaign finance reform -- that is, public funding of candidates who agree to spending limits. If your senators aren't on this list, call them up, too, thank them and urge them to support Clean Money Campaign Reform.

The 48 crocodiles are Spencer Abraham (R-MI); Wayne Allard (R-CO); John Ashcroft (R-MO); Robert Bennett (R-UT) 98; Christopher (Kit) Bond (R-MO) 98; Sam Brownback (R-KS); Conrad Burns (R-MT); Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) 98; Daniel Coats (R-IN) 98; Thad Cochran (R-MS); Paul Coverdell (R-GA) 98; Larry Craig (R-ID); Al D'Amato (R-NY) 98; Mike DeWine (R-OH); Pete Domenici (R-NM); Mike Enzi (R-WY); D.M. (Lauch) Faircloth (R-NC); William Frist (R-TN); Slade Gorton (R-WA); Phil Gramm (R-TX); Rod Grams (R-MN); Charles Grassley (R-IA) 98; Judd Gregg (R-NH) 98; Chuck Hagel (R-NE); Orrin Hatch (R-UT); Jesse Helms (R-NC); Tim Hutchinson (R-AR); Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX); James Inhofe (R-OK); Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID); Jon Kyl (R-AZ); Trent Lott (R-MS); Richard Lugar (R-IN); Connie Mack (R-FL); Mitch McConnell (R-KY); Frank Murkowski (R-AK) 98; Don Nickles (R-OK) 98; Pat Roberts (R-KS); William Roth (R-DE); Rick Santorum (R-PA); Jeff Sessions (R-AL); Richard Shelby (R-AL); Bob Smith (R-NH); Gordon Smith (R-OR); Ted Stevens (R-AK); Craig Thomas (R-WY); Strom Thurmond (R-SC); John Warner (R-VA)

As you drop your income tax return in the mail box this April 15, stop for a moment and say "thank you" for the generous tax breaks Congress delivered.

Sarcasm is intended. You may have gotten a small tax break if you have a lot of dependent children, or if your children are entering college, but of course you will not make out nearly as well as those with a lot of investment income, or those who came in for a large inheritance this past year. Capital gains taxes were sliced by more than 28.5 percent and Congress raised the inheritance tax exemption to $625,000 and scheduled it to be raised to $1 million by 2006.

The latest Republican initiative is to replace our insanely complicated tax code with a simple flat tax. While we are interested in simplifying the tax code, most "flat taxes" we have seen would benefit wealthy taxpayers at the expense of the middle class, or they would require draconian cuts in social spending. We believe in progressive tax rates, under which the wealthy pay a greater share than the poor and middle classes. And tax reform should not come at the expense of hard-won health, education and welfare programs.

U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, the House Minority Leader, has a pretty good plan that would greatly simplify the tax code. A family of four, for example, would get an exemption for the first $27,500 of income and would pay taxes at a 10 percent rate on dollars earned after that, up to roughly $61,000. That would represent a substantial tax cut from current rates. Households with higher incomes would be taxed at higher rates, up to a marginal rate of 34 percent for a married couple making more than $275,000 a year. Still, 75 percent of taxpayers would pay less than 10 percent. The only deduction the Gephardt plan would allow would be home mortgages. You could file your return on a post card.

Tax reform isn't that hard, but to get a fair tax system through Congress, first you need to get the crocodiles out of the creek.

-- Jim Cullen

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

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

Copyright © 1998 The Progressive Populist