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Ending the Money Chase

Campaign reform could return our democracy to its rightful owners

By Nancy Watzman

A law that actually forbids improved fuel efficiency, passed in the waning days of the 106th Congress, provides one of the most striking arguments yet for campaign-finance reform. In its 67 words, Section 320 of Public Law 106-346 prohibits the Department of Transportation from strengthening fuel-economy standards for light trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Inserted at the behest of the automobile industry (which has given $58.4 million to federal candidates and their parties over the past decade), the provision prevents the agency from cutting the U.S. contribution of global warming gases by 240 million tons annually. Though improving fuel economy is the biggest single action the United States could take to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, it has run into a wall of money.

Congress has approved Section 320 as part of the Transportation Department's budget every year since 1995. Only last year, after intense lobbying by the Sierra Club and increased pressure due to high gas prices, did Congress agree to ask the National Academy of Sciences to study the issue-but it continued to prohibit the Transportation Department from taking any concrete action.

Why is Congress so eager to please the auto industry, and so reluctant to heed environmentalists' concerns? It could have something to do with the fact that the auto industry out-contributes environmental groups by a margin of more than 8 to 1. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), environmental groups have given a relatively puny $7 million to candidates and parties since 1990, and that money is from all environmental groups working on a host of issues, of which fuel economy is just one.

Auto-industry money is a good predictor of congressional behavior. In October 1999, the 55 senators who voted against investigating stronger fuel-economy standards received more than twice as much money from the auto industry, on average, as the 40 senators who voted for it, according to an analysis by Public Campaign, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to reform campaign-finance laws.

The environmental lobby finds its arguments buried under industry cash in other areas, too. Since 1990, activists working to end commercial logging on national forests have been up against timber industry campaign contributions of nearly $25 million. Those toiling in the decades-old effort to prevent oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge must confront the effects of the $118 million the oil and gas industry gave politicians over the past decade. And environmentalists who opposed normalizing trade relations with China (because it could encourage U.S. manufacturers to move operations there in search of weak environmental standards) were drowned out by the $85 million spent during the 2000 elections by members of the Business Roundtable, a lobbying coalition of more than 200 major U.S. companies that is a vocal supporter of freer trade with China.

Current campaign-finance laws keep the great majority of politicians addicted to all this legal tender. In the 2000 elections, winning a seat in the House cost an average of $636,000, while a Senate seat cost an average of $5.6 million, according to an analysis by CRP. Overall, the tab for the 2000 elections was more than $3 billion, the highest in history.

Politicians won't overcome their addiction unless there is an alternative way to run successful bids for office. Probably the best-known national campaign-finance reform proposal, by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), would eliminate the soft-money loophole that allows donors to give unlimited dollars to political parties and "independent expenditure" campaigns. In theory, money given to parties is supposed to be used only for general activities, such as get-out-the-vote drives. In practice, parties increasingly use this booty to fund political advertisements that stop just short of directly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate.

In the last Congress, the House passed a modified soft-money ban while the McCain-Feingold bill fell victim to a Senate filibuster led by Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (McConnell, perhaps the Senate's most dedicated foe of campaign-finance reform, is also one of the GOP's most successful fundraisers.)

But congressional support for a ban is growing, and McCain has vowed to fight for his bill this year. He claims to have the 60 votes necessary to stop a Senate filibuster, ensuring that a debate and a vote will go on. The next hurdle will be fending off crippling amendments. As in years past, amendments could be introduced to increase the amount of "hard" money (direct political contributions already limited and regulated) that political donors can give from $1,000 per candidate per election to $3,000 or even higher.

Hard money is no less a tool of political influence. All of the campaign cash collected by the senators voting on Section 320 was hard money-contributed by political-action committees (PACs) and individuals. This money comes largely from a select group of wealthy Americans. Only one-tenth of one percent of the population of the United States made political contributions of $1,000 or more in the 1996 elections, and four-fifths of all political donors have annual family incomes exceeding $100,000 a year. Raising hard-money limits would effectively increase the clout of industry executives.

If Congress passes the McCain-Feingold legislation, the bill still needs the president's signature. In his campaign, Bush supported a watered-down version of a soft-money ban, one that would not restrict the flow of soft money from state party committees or wealthy individuals. If Bush vetoes the bill, then McCain will need to use all the public support he gained during his presidential run to muster two-thirds of the Senate and House to override the veto.

If McCain overcomes these hurdles, he will have achieved an enormous victory. But truly comprehensive campaign-finance reform must completely sever the links between special-interest contributions and politicians. Clean Money Campaign Reform, advocated by Public Campaign and supported by the Sierra Club, would replace the current system with one where candidates who volunteer to forgo private contributions and accept spending limits would receive limited public money to run their campaigns.

This kind of reform proved itself in Maine and Arizona in the 2000 elections. One-third of Maine's new legislature-17 of 35 state senators and 45 of 151 house members-ran successfully under Maine's clean elections law. To qualify, they had to raise a set number of $5 contributions, agree to spending limits, and refuse additional campaign contributions.

Meanwhile, Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Representative John Tierney (D-Mass.) have proposed Clean Money legislation in Congress. The Tierney bill drew 47 cosponsors in the 106th Congress; the Wellstone proposal, just one. Not surprisingly, few legislators are willing to abandon their gravy train; comprehensive campaign reform will come from public pressure, or not at all.

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