Government for hire

IN MARCH THE UNITED STATES EMBARKED ON A MAJOR TRADE WAR with its European trading partners, raising tariffs as high as 100 percent on a variety of goods being exported from Europe. The Europeans have threatened to return the favor.The best government $ can buy?

At the heart of what could turn out to be a costly confrontation for American and European consumers aren't profound differences in trade or tariff policies; it isn't a disagreement over European subsidies of heavy industry. This dispute, in fact, is just "bananas." Europeans give trade preferences to bananas imported from their former colonies; Americans complain that's unfair to banana growers from Central America and other noncolonial producers.

Because it's not a cash crop anywhere in the United States, it's reasonable to wonder why American trade relations have slipped so badly on the lowly banana. Could it have something to do with the $536,000 in political campaign contributions made by Chiquita Banana CEO Carl Lindner and his wife, Edyth?

Critics of the current campaign-finance system say the banana war is just one example of official policy being constructed not at the ballot box or in government committees but in the offices of major campaign contributors.

Matt Keller coordinates the effort to change campaign-finance laws for the Washington-based citizen-advocacy group Common Cause. He can recite a litany of other instances where money and the influence it purchases were the driving forces behind government policy (for three more examples, see sidebar on page 20). To Keller these are the products of an out-of-control political system grown addicted to high-priced television advertising and political consultants, a system that is no longer responsive to the concerns of mere voters.

Million-dollar questions
"We had Senator Bill Bradley here to speak to us," Keller remembers. "He said the first question [political consultants] ask you when you're planning a campaign is 'Do you have a million dollars?' The second question they ask you is 'Can you raise a million dollars?' "

It wasn't the only factor, but the wearying exercise of campaign fundraising was one of the main reasons longtime Illinois senator and onetime presidential aspirant Paul Simon decided to call it quits after 42 years in public office. Simon is enjoying an active "retirement" from politics as a professor at Southern Illinois University, where he directs its Public Policy Institute.

For his final campaign Simon raised $8.4 million—a figure eclipsed last year by the $15.3 million Peter Fitzgerald paid to win his Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate. Dialing for those dollars was a process Simon found degrading.

"I enjoyed policy making," he says. "I even enjoyed campaigning, unlike some of my colleagues. But to ask for money for myself . . . it's just distasteful, and [as a federal legislator] at least one third of your time is spent raising money."

Simon stands with a growing number of state and federal legislators who are calling for restraints on the amount of money spent on U.S. political campaigns—even for complete public financing of campaigns for public office—and for broader disclosure of where campaign contributions originate.

What has alarmed critics of the current system, who cross both party affiliation and ideological ground, is the increasingly high cost of doing politics in America and a deepening public cynicism in the political process—a cynicism engendered by the behavior the nation's hat-in-hand political leaders and the broadening suspicion that public policy is no longer being built on merit but on the likelihood of a political payback.

"The casualties in this process are the people who don't have the money," says Simon. "There are 43 million people in this country who don't have health insurance." But, unlike health-care providers and medical-insurance companies, "they're not big campaign contributors."

Dialing for dollars
Although each electoral cycle seems to reach new and previously unimagined highs, the scandal-ridden 1996 campaigns were the most expensive in U.S. history: $2.7 billion was spent on state and national campaigns. The Clinton and Dole campaigns alone spent $232 million, supplemented by another $69 million in "issues" advertising paid for by the Democratic and Republican parties. (Gearing up for the 2000 elections, political-party committees had already raised $193.2 million by May 1999.)

Both parties endured charges and countercharges of dubious fundraising and accounting practices; and the Clinton/Gore campaign may forever be associated with fund-raising hijinks in Buddhist monasteries and Indonesian executive suites, Lincoln bedroom rentals, and big-ticket coffee klatches.

But for Simon and other critics, such scandals are only a part of the problem. Raising the kind of money required in the TV era of political campaigning has become something approaching a full-time job for legislators.

"You know visitors to the Senate are often appalled to see only two or three senators on the floor at any given time," says Simon. "How much more appalled would they be if they knew that the rest of the senators weren't there because they were on the phone raising money?"

Jim Kale agrees that because of fundraising pressure, there may not be a whole lot of the nation's work taking place in Washington. Although he has moved on to a different position now, Kale was the Chicago archdiocese's coordinator for Dollars and Democracy, a unique collaboration between three Midwestern Catholic dioceses and the American Friends Service Committee (funded through the Joyce Foundation) to get out into the churches and educate citizens about campaign-finance reform.

"These people spend all their time fundraising," Kale complains. "If our politicians spend all day talking just to the people with a lot of money, what kind of policies are they going to enact?"Kale also wonders about the caliber of legislators "earning" the privilege of office. The selection process for candidates today may focus less on the strength of personal character and breadth of experience than on the depth of a checking account.

"The first thing people ask is what's the size of your [campaign] war chest," says Kale, "and that's what can turn you into a front runner. The criteria for public office has become money, not talent."

Dollars and Democracy has sponsored large forums on reform in Chicago and Akron, Ohio and has helped put together more intimate parish-level information sharing meetings on the issue throughout the Chicago area and in Ohio in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron, and Dayton. In Akron, it sponsored a ballot initiative to limit campaign contributions in city races, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters. (The measure currently faces a court challenge.) The group's organizers plan to conduct more information-sharing meetings as well as continue their agenda for state and local campaign-finance reform.

That sounds like a lot of political organizing activity for a church group, and, in fact, some of the initiative's opponents such as Akron councilman John Frank have been complaining that the leaders of Dollars and Democracy "should have stayed with religion."

But Kale says it makes perfect sense for the church to be involved in campaign-finance reform "if you think about all the issues we've been involved with over many years. Take disarmament, for instance," he says. "We can talk all we want about disarmament and peace and justice till the cows come home, but as long as defense contractors are handing out checks, we're wasting our time."

"People don't understand how [campaign reform] is a religious issue," agrees Greg Coleridge, an Akron coordinator for Dollars and Democracy from the American Friends Service Committee. "But what are the issues we deal with over the year? Social justice, human rights, social services. We are stymied on these public-policy issues no matter how well we witness, organize, or agitate. We hit this brick wall on policy. We don't bring money to the political table, and that is how many of the times success is measured."

In for the long haul
The effort to energize Catholics around campaign-finance reform faces a number of obstacles, not the least of which is the difficulty of wading through the Byzantine rules of campaign financing.  

Kale admits the topic can be intimidating until parishioners begin to understand that "it's really about money and buying votes and keeping people out of the process." He's also able to throw his criticism of current campaign laws into more familiar terms for Catholics. Kale says the current system is an affront to human dignity.

Bad-faith politics, he says, "is one reason people are becoming cynical and leaving the system. They think our political system is just bought and sold. This is a moral issue for the church. I think you'd say this is a religious issue if you believe in everyone having dignity. If you ask, 'Does everyone deserve a voice in our political system?' We say a resounding 'Yes, everyone does'—not just people with $50,000 to contribute."

Matt Keller is prepared to hunker down for the long haul in the effort to reform the way Washington does business. "It's a huge battle," he says. "We're asking members of Congress to do something that is against their self-interest, to put themselves at risk of losing their next election, and we're asking the special interests to give up their ability to influence politicians.

He expects the reform effort's victories to be measured across years, not months. "Real, comprehensive reform would require a civil-rights style process. . . . You're talking about breaking the nexus between money and power, and in the United States, that's a tough thing to do."

So tough that the bipartisan reform package put together by Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russell Feingold and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain has spent years waiting for its day before the Senate. Currently the McCain-Feingold bill is once more stalled in Congress, making its annual bid for serious consideration before drifting again into the legislative limbo of committee negotiation. A vote on its companion legislation in the House, the Shays-Meehan bill, passed in the 105th Congress, but a vote in the 106th has been put off until at least September.

Both the House and Senate reform proposals call for a complete ban on the raising of "soft money" and stronger restrictions on the running of what some critics describe as campaign ads disguised as issues ads.

Soft money is the cash raised from corporations, labor unions, and private individuals in unrestricted contributions to political parties. Although critics say soft money is increasingly used directly for political campaigns, such contributions are supposed to be used for "general party building activities." That's why soft money evades the tougher contribution limits and disclosure requirements federal election law applies to "hard money"—direct contributions to specific political candidates.

The McCain-Feingold and Shays-Meehan reform package would eliminate the "soft money loophole" entirely and would require that "issue" ads that mention a federal candidate by name within 60 days of an election be paid for with hard money.

Split decisions
The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) is among the opponents of the kind of reform envisaged by the McCain-Feingold bill and probably the major obstacle within the Catholic Church to a broader position in favor of this campaign-finance-reform package. One of the nation's biggest advocacy spenders, the NRLC has made defeating the bipartisan reform package a major legislative priority.

The NRLC is joined in its resistance to specific aspects of the reform package by a cross-ideological cast of characters, a "strange bedfellows" chorus, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association. The AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club join the NRLC in resistance to the reform package's restrictions on "issue ads," although both support "soft money" bans, public campaign financing, and spending limits.

NRLC's legislative director Douglas Johnson argues that these soft money and "issue ad" restrictions inevitably run afoul of First Amendment protections and a precedent-setting Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo. That 1976 decision allows political speech unrestrained by federal election laws when it reflects "issue advocacy," such as an NRLC ad calling for a ban on partial-birth abortion. But the court ruled those federal controls can be applied to "express advocacy," that is, political messages that explicitly urge a vote for or against a specific candidate.

Critics charge that ads run around elections by the NRLC, labor unions, and other advocacy groups skirt the spirit of the Buckley decision by noting the names and voting records of candidates, or sometimes simply running their images in TV advertising—even though they may never include a specific endorsement for or against a candidate. But to Johnson, such ads fall well within the fair playing field of the U.S. tradition of free speech and commentary on political issues and the intent and language of Buckley.

Current proposals, says Johnson, would "have a chilling effect on free speech."

The ACLU agrees, arguing that the current congressional proposals are "doomed to failure in the courts."

What the church teaches

"Certain demands which arise within society are sometimes not examined in accordance with criteria of justice and morality but rather on the basis of the electoral or financial power of the groups promoting them."—Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (1991)

"All people have a right to participate in the political process. This is an inalienable right based in human nature and not a privilege of wealth. . . . People with more money should not be allowed to dominate the political debate or monopolize access to elected officials. Access to money or possession of wealth should not be the prerequisite to conducting a viable campaign for public office."—Catholic bishops of Illinois, Statement on Campaign Finance Reform (1998)

"Political advertising can support and assist the working of the democratic process, but it can also obstruct it. This happens when . . . the costs of advertising limit political competition to wealthy candidates or groups or require that office seekers compromise their integrity and independence by overdependence on special interests for funds."—Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Ethics in Advertising (1997).

"These bills don't simply deal with the way candidates raise money for themselves," says Johnson. "A lot of this legislation would restrict the right of private citizenship groups to reach out and speak to the public. This is particularly critical to the National Right to Life Committee and perhaps other organizations that the secular news media is very unsympathetic to."

Johnson also resists restrictions on contributions, spending limits, and tougher funding-disclosure requirements included in reform proposals. "The court recognizes that if you can suppress expenditures, you can suppress speech," he says.

Speaking of disclosure requirements that would reveal donor information, Johnson adds, "This is not the kind of information you should have to turn over to the federal government.

"Whatever members of Congress do to limit or regulate their own fundraising policies has to respect the traditional right of American citizens to speak on the positions of those holding office," he says. "The essence of democracy is that everyone gets to speak their point of view and the public gets to sort it all out."

Meanwhile, the people at Dollars and Democracy are working "to craft constitutionally acceptable reform at the local level," says Tom Allio, the director of Cleveland's diocesan Social Action Office and the co-leader of Dollars and Democracy in Akron. "We're working within the confines of the existing law, even though many of us would like to see that law overturned. We believe that the fundamental principle of Buckley v. Valeo—that money is the equivalent of free speech—is flawed.

"From a Catholic perspective this is Political Responsibility 101, and we believe that campaign-finance reform is fundamental to all other types of reform and all the other issues that we as a church are concerned about: housing, education, poverty, and having a stronger voice for the unborn and on other life issues." Unless the Buckley decision is overturned, Allio argues, "The kind of effect you can have at the state and federal level is going to be limited."

Allio also expresses a concern, shared by a number of other Catholic social-policy advocates who requested anonymity, that the opposition of the NRLC to campaign-finance reform is making the issue difficult for the church to even discuss.

"In the Diocese of Cleveland, we have been a lot freer to articulate principles of reform and advocate for them than seems to be the case at the national level," Allio says.

"I think Catholics need to be concerned and informed about how money corrupts our political system, and we are challenged to try and devise remedies that meet constitutional barriers. It is my sincere hope that the NRLC is not exercising undue influence on the [U.S. Catholic Conference's] ability to tackle the complex problem of campaign-finance reform.

"Unless advocates get a handle on reform," Allio worries, "all the great social-justice issues that we are concerned about have less priority for decision-makers. [Without reform] the voices of those with money really scream down the voices of those who are advocating on behalf of poor and vulnerable families."

The NRLC's Johnson views efforts such as Dollars and Democracy as sincere but perhaps misguided, taking an overly simplistic view of the problem of campaign reform and devising systemic mechanisms for protecting free speech. In the final analysis, he says, the entire problem of money in politics has been overdramatized by reform proponents. "Americans spend more on potato chips than they do on politics. We're electing people who control nuclear arsenals and direct our lives; how much is too much to spend?"

A call to reform
But it is not the total amount of spending on campaigns that is at issue, counters Paul Simon; it is the effect those contributions have on public policy, an effect whose costs can greatly exceed the comparatively minor campaign-dollar figures.

"Let me give you an example," says Simon. "The Pentagon says, 'We don't want any B-2 bombers.' But if you vote 'Yes' on the B-2 you know you'll get a campaign contribution [from defense contractors], and if you vote 'No,' you won't get anything. What are you going to do?" asks Simon. It is just such congressional calculus, he suggests, that drives some of the decisions that make it out of committee in Washington.

"That's how we ended up with 21 useless B-2 bombers."

Simon is not confident that Congress is capable of cleaning its own house through comprehensive campaign reform. He thinks it's more likely that reform will eventually be forced at the federal level based on a number of experiments in campaign funding taking place at the state level across the country. Reforms that may rise above congressional inaction and constitutional challenges are publicly financed campaigns and voluntary campaign limits, already the rule in Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and Arizona.

Whatever shape reform does take, Simon believes it's critical that the process begins soon. "I'm often asked about the difference between Lincoln's time and our time," says Simon.

"In Lincoln's time the world's greatest military power was England; the world's greatest economic power was England. And among all the industrialized nations the worst slums could be found in England. Now a hundred years later we ask, 'How could this be?'

"Today the world's greatest military and economic power is the United States. And among the industrialized nations, the country that has the greatest percentage of children living in poverty is the United States. A hundred years from now, people again will ask, 'How could that be?'

"Part of the reason that 'could be,'" says Simon, "is that no one is paying attention to the needs of the poor. Because of these big campaign contributions, we're paying attention to the whims of the rich. . . . They say the highest commandment of the Bible is that we take care of the poor; under the present system, we're not doing that very well." 

Campaign Finance Reform resources

Follow the money (PBS series)

Washington Post series on reform

Sojourners covers campaign reform

National Civic League

Yahoo's Campaign Finance Reform links

Mother Jones' Coin-operated Congress

Campaign Finance Information Center

Kevin Clarke is the Managing Editor of Online Products for Claretian Publications and a Contributing Editor to U.S. Catholic.

All active news articles