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Stateside: Putting Your Back Pocket Into It

Stateside With Rosalea: Putting Your Back Pocket Into It

For someone like me, who comes from a country where a political candidate risks censure for 'treating' prospective voters by throwing a couple of snarlers on the barbie, the huge amounts of money that are spent on political campaigns here in the States are mind-boggling. I am not alone. At a fundraising event for the solar power and city-owned utility propositions on last November's ballot in San Francisco, a French woman who stepped up to the microphone to pledge $1000 said she did so because she felt sorry for Americans that they had to beg for democracy.

So it is that this week's biggest news - "revolution" was the word used in one headline - was the passing by the House of Representatives of the Shays-Meehan bill on campaign finance reform. It is the companion bill to the one already passed by the Senate, sponsored by McCain and Feingold. The two bills have some slight differences, so the next step is to see if those differences can be accommodated easily or if the debate will be moved behind the closed doors of the Conference Committee. If it ever comes out of there, the bill will go to the President for approval or veto.

But wait, there could be more! In 1976 two senators brought suit against the Secretary of the US Senate, and others, challenging the provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act 1971 as amended. (Along with the 1907 Act that banned campaign contributions by banks and corporations, the FECA post-Watergate amendments are a milestone in US attempts to rescue federal elections from the hands of the "fat cats".) The case ended up in the US Supreme Court where the Court decided that the limitations on campaign expenditures, on independent expenditures by individuals and groups, and on expenditures by a candidate from his or her personal funds were constitutionally defective. Ipso facto, fatso catso!

Now, I'm sure that if you're interested in politics and campaigning you know more about this than I do, or at least have seen some pretty graphics in a weekly magazine somewhere explaining the ins and outs of hard and soft money. It is actually a very complex issue that unfortunately lends itself to "the monism of a morality play, one with a simple plot, boldly defined characters, and an elemental struggle of good and evil that engages its audience in unquestioning belief", as Frank Souraf said in his book 'Inside Campaign Finance'.

"Unquestioning belief", of course, must be cultivated. It doesn't spring up spontaneously. Ironically, one of the things that most cultivates the unquestioning belief that the US has "the best Congress money can buy" are the very arguments for AND against the role of money in election campaigns. The underlying assumption of both sides of the argument is that money is what makes the difference. Yet "politics" comes from a Greek word that means "citizen" and democracy from a word that means "people". And a ballot paper represents a series of choices a person has to make. There is something insulting about assuming there is a direct correlation between the choices people make and the amount of money spent on convincing them to make that choice.

The reason incumbents are so often re-elected here in the States is that they have established a network of PEOPLE. Whether those people are donating money or not, it is their participation in the election campaign that matters. And the important thing that campaign finance buys is time. Not just time on the airwaves, but the time to meet people and talk to them. You just need to look at the occupations of members of Congress to recognise that for a fact - there ain't too many shopkeepers or sharecroppers, but there's an overabundance of lawyers, who can organise their work around themselves instead of around their businesses or the weather.

Yes, money is an issue. It has been dealt with in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont by having publicly funded "clean election" laws. I'd call them "slightly soiled" myself, as they still rely on the candidate raising money in the first place to be eligible for public funds, but that money has to be raised in small amounts from the registered voters in their districts, making the candidate responsible to local people rather than to distant corporate benefactors.

Television air time is an issue. In this week's 'Asian Week', columnist Phil Tajitsu Nash asks: "Who gave away our nation's television airwaves in the 1950s, so that candidates must impoverish themselves and become beholden to big money interests in order to buy television ads during the last weeks of the campaign season? The airwaves should be public property, retained for use during the campaign season for airing informational items at no cost to federal, state and local candidates."

It's not only the issues of free speech (the constitutional right that the Supreme Court said, back in 1976, was violated by FECA) and campaign finance that are important in making a revolutionary, lasting change in the way democracy is conducted (as opposed to orchestrated) in the United States. There are many other voting rights issues that need to be attended to.

But then I would say that. Yesterday I went up one too many steps in hilly SF or bent over to pick up one too many dropped doorhangers touting Proposition A - instant run-off voting - to think my pain has been in vain. Talk about putting your back into it!

Lea Barker
Sunday 17 January, 2002

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