Cleaning House

BILL CLINTON POSTURES as an advocate of campaign finance reform and an opponent of soft money, even while continuing his endless personal cup-rattling to shake down fat-cat influence buyers and pay off the $17 million debt the Democrats incurred for his last campaign (he even tried to bar the press from his last $250,000-a-head dinner). But if he was serious about changing the corrupt system pols and parties milk to fill their coffers, he'd support the Clean Money Clean Elections Act introduced in the Senate last week by John Kerry and Paul Wellstone.

The new bill is infinitely preferable to the better-known McCain-Feingold proposal, which is basically a fraud: While claiming to ban soft money, it applies only to the national parties, leaving state parties free to collect all the soft money they want. The dangers in this giant loophole were underscored with the revelation last week that Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin put the arm on fugitive oil financier Roger Tamraz for a $30,000 contribution to the Iowa Democratic Party for Harkin's '96 re-election campaign, at a time Tamraz was seeking help for his oil-pipeline scheme from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency headed by Harkin's wife.

The Kerry-Wellstone bill is a vast improvement. It gives public funding to candidates who voluntarily agree to its limits on contributions and spending, as well as providing them with free and discounted TV time. A Clean Money candidate outspent by a wealthy or privately financed opponent will be entitled to matching funds to level the playing field, a provision that also applies to so-called "independent expenditures" by partisan front groups.

One great advantage of the Clean Money proposal is that it applies to primaries as well as general elections, thus providing public funding for challengers of entrenched incumbents. To qualify for Clean Money funding, a candidate would have to collect $5 from a certain percentage of supporters, a figure that would vary based on the size of the voting population. As Wellstone pointed out on the Senate floor in his speech introducing the measure, "In Minnesota a major-party candidate would have to gather about 8,500 signatures, each accompanied by a $5 check to the Senate Election Fund."

Although state-ballot access laws--heavily skewed against independent and third-party candidacies in most places--would still apply, the Clean Money bill is somewhat less biased against such candidacies than most proposals. Non-major-party candidates could still qualify for public funding by gathering 150 percent of the signatures and $5 contributions demanded of Democrats and Republicans.

Modeled on a Clean Money ballot initiative passed by Maine voters last November, the Senate bill was spawned by Public Campaign, a new public-interest lobby launched this year with a $9 million endowment from George Soros's Open Society Fund and other benefactors. Support for the idea is growing: Vermont passed Clean Money legislation earlier this year, and new polls in five states released last week by Public Campaign show that voters strongly favor it (by 66 percent in Massachusetts and Missouri, 59 percent in Michigan and Idaho, and 55 percent in New York City).

Public Campaign, in addition to its grassroots organizing work, is spending $500,000 on a print and TV ad campaign to promote the new bill, but even more noise is needed. The press conference Public Campaign held last week with Kerry and Wellstone to announce the bill's introduction was almost totally blacked out by the national media. And it will probably take many more states following the lead of Maine and Vermont to create the pressure needed for Congress to begin to take the proposal seriously (although it has already been endorsed editorially by USA Today, the Boston Globe, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

The bill was introduced on the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, but as Public Citizen's director, longtime campaign-reform advocate Ellen Miller, noted last week, despite the current campaign money mega-scandal, "Instead of responding like the 'Watergate Congress' by passing substantial legislation, the 105th Congress is behaving more like the infamous 'plumbers'--they aren't getting the job done and now they're trying to cover up their misdeeds."

This means that, to achieve Clean Money reform, you need to get involved.

For more information, write Public Campaign, 1320 19th St. N.W., Suite M-1, Washington, D.C. 20036; e-mail: [email protected]; website:

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