The Republican Senate leadership, wrapped tightly in the flag of "free speech," has killed campaign finance reform for the fourth year in a row.
The Feingold-McCain bill would have eliminated "soft money" -- unregulated money that goes directly to political parties. This year's bill was similar to a bill already passed in the House, and would have allowed non-union members to stop labor unions from spending their mandatory dues on political activities.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott rushed to pronounce the bill dead for the year after two votes, a move which drew criticism from both parties. Both Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) expressed disappointment that debate was terminated.
Hagel has a package of reforms of his own which he wanted to offer, but the Republican Senator from Nebraska has badly misdiagnosed what ails us and misprescribed the cure. His plan would have increased disclosure requirements, capped soft money contributions at $60,000, and allowed individuals and corporations (Hagel's own strongest campaign finance sources) to triple their contributions.
The problem's not disclosure. We know a lot about who gives to whom, and how much. For instance, ConAgra was Nebraska's deepest political pocket in the 1997-98 cycle of federal elections -- at about $423,000, half again as much as the next highest spender, Mutual of Omaha at about $271,000. We know that ConAgra's political action committee (PAC) has been the beneficiary of over $100,000 in contributions over the last three election cycles from corporation employees, about half in annual $200 or $300 contributions, a practice known as bundling. We know ConAgra's PAC gives three times as much to Republicans as Democrats.
Supreme Court Justice David Souter said recently, "Most people assume -- I certainly do -- that someone making an extraordinarily large contribution is going to get something extraordinary in return." I can point to the fact that ConAgra's investments in the campaigns of Rep. Bill Barrett (R-Neb.), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) over the years have paid off in the farm and trade policies which are facilitating the corporate takeover of agriculture.
It's just my finger, I admit. It's not a smoking gun. Still, the countryside is littered with the corpses of family farms, and Cargill (one of ConAgra's partners in shared food processing monopolies) posted quarterly earnings up 3,750 percent over last year.
The problem's not that rich people suffer inflation like the rest of us and need a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) on their right to buy influence at the ballot box and in the making of policy. The problem might almost be the word "free" and its abuse by folks whose cynicism is as deep as their pockets.
"Free trade" is a world-wide economic policy designed to benefit a handful of multinationals at the expense of the planet and everybody else. "Free markets" don't exist in a system of shared monopolies.
"Free speech" is only as deep as your pockets, in politics in America today. Bill Barrett spent over $150,000 last election, and I'll bet you can't name his opposition. Costly professional television campaigning, without which no major office can be won today, keeps people of modest means out of the race, and ultimately out of office. That's one reason Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE) supported the Feingold-McCain bill.
But Kerrey is also concerned about perception. And Justice Souter asks why concrete proof of the corrupting nature of large political contributions is necessary "for something that seems so inherently plausible."
Next June the US Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of Missouri's contribution limits in state races. In 1976, the court said free speech rights mean candidate spending cannot be limited. But the court drew a distinction at that time between expenditures and contributions.
At peril to our democracy, for too many Americans, the verdict is already in. Low U.S. voter turn-outs over the past quarter century are the despair of progressive political workers and the wonder of would-be voters who struggle for democracies of their own in other parts of the world. But average Americans don't vote because they have lost faith in the process, because they believe many public officials have been "bought off," because they see cookie cutter candidates when they want clear choices on pocketbook issues.
For the fourth year in row, soft money is safe. The Senate leadership thwarted a bipartisan majority, and scored a big win, as President Bill Clinton said, "for the politics of cynicism."
Sally Herrin is education and communications director of the Nebraska Farmers Union. Email NeFUSal@aol.com or phone 402-476-8815.