Congress Must Pass Finance Reform Bill Now

17 September 1999

By Stentor Danielson

Last year at about this time, I saw a sign in Gate House that said "Vote for Josh -- he spent $1.19 on this marker." The slogan must have worked, because Josh was elected president of Gate House for the 98-99 school year.

My point is that it costs money to run for office, even if the office is only Dorm President. Naturally, it costs proportionately more to run for a national office. Though Josh doubtless paid $1.19 out of his own wallet for his campaign, U.S. congressional and presidential condidates can't do the same. But problems can occur when spending other people's money. Because of this, the House of Representatives passed a bill this week designed to curb abuses in campaign financing. Last year, a similar bill was killed by a Senate filibuster. For the good of the country, they can't let that happen again.

The bill has two main components. First, it aims to stop the use of "soft money" -- money donated to political parties rather than to candidates -- from being used in campaigns. Second, it prohibits "informational" ads that, though they do not specifically endorse one candidate, have a definite slant.

The problem with "soft money" is that it is raised by powerful political organizations. As it stands now, any John Smith could make use of the resources of the Democratic or Republican party if he manages to gain that party's endorsement. But an independent candidate must rely on his own charms and intelligence to woo monetary support from organizations. The availability of "soft money" puts up a formidable barrier to independent candidates.

Think back to H. Ross Perot. He must have been doing something right to get himself on the ballot as a third candidate. But even with his immense personal wealth, he couldn't compete with Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, who had the major parties behind them, and he failed to get a single electoral vote.

I can't say that, had Dole and Clinton's campaigns been more restricted in their fiscal policy, Perot would have won -- I certainly wouldn't have voted for him. But as expensive techno-propaganda becomes more and more a staple of political campaigns, the supremacy of the two existing parties will become more and more entrenched, to the detriment of our democratic ideals.

Slanted "informational" ads are a devious example of techno-propaganda. The ability of democracy to function rests on the ability of the citizens to make informed choices. These ads claim to aid in doing just that. But in reality, they are tricking viewers into supporting our friend John Smith, rather than providing a balanced view of the issues.

The disinterested, sensationalistic public that exists today will eat that sort of thing up, never suspecting that it is being manipulated. A candidate who truly believes in his or her positions, and is not simply taking them in order to woo the support and money of a particular special interest, should not be afraid to hide behind such scheming. Senators who vote against the measure are saying that they are insecure and want a few dirty tricks to keep up their sleeve.

More important than the effect on the acctual abuses being eliminated by the bill is the good public relations it will foster. It will be good for the government if voters see it cleaning up after itself. It's no secret that Americans are disenchanted with their elected officials, often seeing them as immoral and special-interest-serving. Fiascoes like the Monica Lewinsky nightmare don't help matters.

Furthermore, the debate over campaign finance reform is itself an example of Congressmen's lack of contact with the people who put them there. Polls have shown that, when the candidates finally decide to take stands on issues, such things as educations and gun control will mean more in voters' decisions than campaign finance reform. That is not to say that the bill is meaningless. But it sends a bad message if our legislators spend all their time worrying over the particulars of a minor issue, while the citizens -- their employers -- are more concerned with schools and the guns in them. It will do the country good if the Senate can quickly pass the bill, thus putting the issue out of the way (at least for a time) and clearing the way for discussions of more important topics.

There is even hope that a successful campaign finance law might take some of the emphasis off candidates' coffers. Ideally, candidates spend their time promising to work for certain goals and taking stands on issues. But to date, the vast majority of news coverage of the pending election has revolved around how much money John Smith has raised. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to say that any candidate has taken a clear position on any issue at all.

Naturally, this one bill alone will not make Americans become interested in, and respectful of, the government. But it can be a start. If our elected officials make a habit of listening to the needs of the people, rather than furthering their own partisan struggles and financial interests, the climate can change for the better. But to get things moving in the right direction, the Senate needs to pass the campaign finance reform bill quickly.

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