Citizens Must Take Reform Into Their Own Hands

Once again, Congress has proven to the nation it is incapable of reforming itself. The demise of both the lobby reform bill and the campaign finance bill highlight the fact that politicians, left to their own devices, can not be relied upon to end the corrupting role that special interest money plays in undermining our democracy today. Putting an end to auction block elections is a not a job for the politicians — it is a job for citizens.

The citizen organizations in Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Montana are using the initiative process to get big money out of politics. Going straight to the ballot is the best way to bypass incumbent politicians who, in bi-partisan cooperation, time and again circle the wagons to derail reform and protect business as usual. Using the initiative process to recapture the institutions of government that have been seized by well-heeled, large corporate interest lobbies is a high form of citizen action. For the sake of representative democracy, let’s hope the citizens in these states spark a movement for change that engulfs the country.

Not since the congressional salary grab of 1989 have a group of rulers been so visibly out-of-touch with the ruled. Incumbent politicians, whether in Congress or state legislatures, continue to deny the pernicious role that large campaign contributions play in American elections. The citizenry knows better. In our present politics, big money shapes who runs for office, who wins office, and which issues get attention from those who occupy office. The homily rings ever so true here: the one who pays the piper calls the tune. And the big money is not provided by citizens. It is heavily fed into both political parties and numerous campaign committees by the business interest elite — the banks, the insurance industry, the health care industry, the chemical companies, the real estate industry and on and on. Representation is afforded to the highest bidder. We have a government of the Exxons, by the General Motors and for the DuPonts. The free speech rights of the majority of citizens are being stifled by the disproportionate wealth of the special interests.

Enacting these modest but important reforms will help restore the political clout and voting-booth equality of all the citizens of these five states and may set the stage for meaningful campaign finance reform at the national level. The contribution limits for state legislative races — coupled with requirements that most campaign money not come from businesses and interest groups will require politicians to reach out directly to more people. Severely limiting the sources and amount of campaign money can do as much, or more, than term limits to make government more responsive to citizens. At the national level, the voluntary check-off on federal tax returns that is used to fund presidential elections should also be used to fund congressional campaigns. It is time to close the loopholes that allow for corporations to deduct the cost of lobbying and the loopholes that allow “fatcats” to make “soft money” contributions to political parties.

Don’t look for incumbent politicians to embrace the $100 contribution limits which are a central element of these state-based initiatives. Incumbents like business as usual because special interest money flows almost exclusively to incumbents. Keeping intact a system that funds incumbents at the expense of challengers is a high priority for many officeholders. According to the most recent report by the Federal Election Commission, Senate and House campaigns raised a total of $387.7 million between January 1, 1994 and June 30, 1994. Political Action Committees (PACs) raised $97.5 in this same six month period. Democratizing campaigns by lowering contribution limits to amounts that are affordable is a destabilizing concept not only for incumbents but also for the powerful lobbies that dominate politics. Look for both these groups to lead the attack on this reform effort.

Restoring democracy requires direct democratic action. Citizens want big money out of politics and a government that represents the interests of consumers, taxpayers and workers, not a government that represents only the highest bidder.

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