The Real Obscenity is Campaign Finance

Elephant dung on a drawing of the Virgin Mary makes headlines because it shocks the sensibilities of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The fact that corporations can rent politicians and political parties for their special interests hardly qualifies as a shocker anymore.

Which represents the greater obscenity? That a mediocre artist gets national publicity for putting dung on his paintings, or that candidates, to have a serious chance of gaining and keeping elective office, must engage in constant fundraising that forces them to rely on the generosity of lobbyists for corporate interests.

I suppose the good news for potential candidates is that they can get all the money they need if they are willing to go along with whatever the banks, insurance, tobacco, telecommunications and other big-money industralists want. Principles are for also-rans, the wise guys say.

Most people think there is a crying need for campaign finance reform, starting with the "bare bones" bill that Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., are trying to get through the Senate. That bill would simply ban "soft money" contributions by corporations and labor unions to political parties for use in federal elections. Corporate officers and lobbyists could still bribe politicians. They just would have to do it $1,000 at a time, as regular campaign contributions. However, Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, remains the implacable foe of campaign finance reform, and he apparently has enough support from his Republican colleagues to keep even limited reforms from passing. Instead he wants to raise the $1,000 individual contribution limit to candidates. The limit has not been increased since it was set in 1974, McConnell noted. "Clearly, there has been an enormous erosion of purchasing power over the last 25 years," he said. Clearly McConnell has no sense of shame.

Doris "Granny D" Haddock may yet put McConnell to shame. This great-grandmother, a retired secretary from Dublin, N.H., already has trekked 2,200 miles, from Los Angeles to Nashville so far, seeking to draw attention to the need for campaign finance reform. She expects to arrive in Washington, D.C., in time for her 90th birthday next January 24. Despite arthritis, emphysema, sore feet and other aches and pains, Granny D has kept up a schedule of walking 10 miles a day through southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee, getting food and shelter from people in communities along the way. She is a modern pilgrim seeking to restore democracy. She speaks to whomever will listen -- and more people are getting the message. In Pecos, Texas, she spoke at a Cancer Society walking relay about turning personal loss into something of beauty, as she did after the deaths of her husband and a close friend. She took a day off from her trek through Texas to fly up to Dearborn, Mich., in July to speak to the Reform Party convention [see her remarks in the 9/99 Progressive Populist].

In her journal, posted online at www.grannyd.com, she wrote from Benton, Ark., in August, "To the extent that public policy is decided by the monied special interests, we are not a practicing democracy." She told of meeting people who were reluctant to vote anymore because they felt it could not compare with a $5,000 PAC check, or a $100,000 soft money contribution. She urges them not to give up.

She has spoken at Little Rock's First Baptist Church, from a pulpit from which Dr. Martin Luther King preached in the 1960s. She challenged "The Apologists of Corruption" in a speech at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated. She entered Nashville the morning of October 8 flanked by U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tennessee, who helped lead the campaign reform effort in the House, and Sen. Feingold. She read the names of 44 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor from Tennessee, and added, "for each name, there are thousands of other Tennessee men and women who have dedicated their lives -- and sometimes sacrificed their lives -- to protect our freedoms.

"These sacrifices were not made so that special interests and big money might take control of our institutions of self-governance. If we indeed let that happen, then we are not honoring the price that has been paid for our freedoms." She issued this challenge: "Do the right thing, Senators. Pass this bill that Mr. Feingold and Mr. McCain have put before you and that the common men and women of America long for. Be brave against your financial needs. Be brave against your party's needs. Do what your mother and your grandmother would have you do in the name of all your family members who have sacrificed so much for our freedoms."

In a speech to Tennessee Common Cause in Nashville on Oct. 9, Granny D also talked about democracy as a work in progress. "We are fortunate, then, that the forces of greed and deception are always busy out there, giving us the gift of a good fight, which is exactly what we are are on this earth for," she said.

The McCain-Feingold ban on soft money won't stop corporate interests from financing candidates and calling the shots in Congress. That would require something on the order of public financing of candidates, which would allow an ordinary person to run for Congress -- something neither corporations nor incumbents want to encourage. However, the ban on soft money is a start. And Republicans will have to be shown that those who stand in the way of campaign finance reform will be defeated at the polls. Organize a walk in solidarity with Granny D, even if you're nowhere near her route. Then see who votes against McCain-Feingold and send your old shoes to the "foot draggers," c/o U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C. 20510. For more information, see her wonderful web site at www.grannyd.com.

Bill Bradley has a plan to expand health coverage to the working poor and their children. Good for him. Bill Clinton virtually abandoned efforts to expand heath coverage after his administration botched an attempt at health care reform in 1994. Since then, despite the economic boom on Wall Street, the number of uninsured has risen to 44 million, as welfare deform has forced parents to take low-wage jobs without health benefits even as they lose Medicaid coverage for themselves and their children. The Democratic leadership counted it as a victory when they put together a coalition with moderate Republicans in the House to pass a bill allowing managed-care patients to sue their health maintenance organizations. However, the bill would do little good for the uninsured and anyway it is unlikely to survive reconciliation with the more niggardly Senate version.

Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey, put forth a plan that would provide tax credits for children in families with annual income under $32,800 and partial insurance subsidies for household incomes up to $49,200. He would subsidize coverage for adults in low-wage households under $16,400 income, with partial subsidies for households up to $32,800. In addition, Bradley would let all Americans buy into the existing federal employees' health insurance system. He also would expand Medicare to help elderly Americans pay for prescription drugs.

His plan is not universal health coverage, which we prefer. The Bradley plan would keep insurance companies and HMOs in charge of health care, raking their profits off the top. However, Bradley's plan would be a step toward the day when we have a single-payer plan that takes the burden off businesses to provide for health coverage, lets patients pick their doctors and removes insurance company bureaucrats from the health care process. To those who criticize that Bradley's plan would spend the projected federal budget surplus over the next 10 years, we reply "What better use for budget surpluses than to expand health care." -- Jim Cullen

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