Withering Heights

WASHINGTON– When a group of Republicans, Democrats and White House lobbyists piled up behind Senator James Allen’s (D. Ala.) filibuster to defeat the Presidential campaign finance reform amendment this month, they made clear to the voters that it will take more than the massive Watergate corruption of big money in politics to get big money out of politics.

David Brinkley once called large campaign contributions disguised bribes to get politicians to support the donors’ interests. And he spoke months before the seemingly endless admissions by corporate executives of illegal funds finding their way from corporate treasuries into the recent Presidential re-election campaign. A combination of shakedowns by zealous Nixon aides of company officials together with business bribers wanting favors, contracts or dropping of law enforcement actions has turned the present Administration into the most corrupt in American history.

But such campaign contributions and their abuses are not limited to the Executive branch. Corporate and some union funds have flowed with cynical and manipulative intent to the Congress for years. Such funds, increasing mightily with every election, are crucial in entrenching incumbents against their challengers. Common Cause reports that special interest groups contribute three times more to incumbent Congressmen than to their challengers. Well they might for the lawmakers have more to offer them in return.

This latest attempt to reform campaign finance looked promising in November before a plurality of the Senate lost their nerve a week later. On November 27, the Senate passed by a vote of 57-34 an amendment to the debt-ceiling bill for public financing of both Congressional and Presidential elections. It was in partial accord with a Gallup poll
that showed 65 percent of citizens surveyed favoring public financing of campaigns. But it did not go as far as the majority polled who wanted to ban private contributions completely.

The amendment permitted small private contributions in addition to public financing. But acting House Ways and Means Chairman, Al Ullman (D. Oregon) refused to have the House conferees meet with the Senate conferees to work out a compromise on the campaign spending amendment. Previously the House had passed a debt-ceiling bill but no campaign finance reform. Instead of meeting in conference, Mr. Ullman got the House to pass the debt-ceiling bill again without any campaign reform. He had the blessing of many House members who did not want to go on the public record against campaign finance reform.

This newly passed House debt-ceiling bill required Senate action to pass the legislation once again, with the campaign finance reform amendment included. At this point, Senator Allen, who is not closely monitored by Alabama voters, started and won his filibuster with a large number of silent allies and backroom lobbying by Mr. Nixon’s men.

By the day of the final vote on December 3rd, all that was left in the amendment was
(1) public financing of Presidential primary campaigns on a matching basis for candidates who could raise at least $100,000 of private contributions under $100 or less; (2) a limit of $3,000 on pre-nomination contributions from individuals or groups; (3) a ban on private contributions to candidates of major parties during the general election period unless the $1 tax checkoff system failed to raise the maximum spending limit of $21 million for each qualifying Presidential candidate.

Precisely what can the American people do now to end the buying of elections? First they can take note that the members of Congress are feeling enough heat to be promising one and all that they will pass a bill early next year. Even willful Congressman Wayne Hays (D.Ohio), who has delayed or opposed campaign finance reform in recent years from his powerful position as Chairman of the House Administration Committees has pledged to report a limited bill out by February or March.

Piecemeal reform is not enough, however. Too many scandals have surrounded and corrupted the present system to permit anything less than basic and comprehensive change. Numerous members of Congress have confided that no other legislation would be more responsive to persistent and informed citizen action-from letters, telegrams, meetings, petitions directed to the men and women on Capitol Hill before it is renamed “Withering Heights.”

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