Far-reaching campaign finance reform bills have surfaced in Congress, but their prospects are looking dim.
“It’s clear that the campaign finance system is one reason people distrust their government,” said Lloyd Leonard, legislative director of the League of Women Voters. “So it is surprising when public elected officials vote against fixing the system.”
The League is among a number of non-partisan groups working for campaign finance reform in Washington, D.C. Legislation has been proposed in both the House and the Senate, but the Senate killed its version the week before last on a procedural vote.
Voters are becoming cynical, according to the League’s surveys. They don’t like the idea that politicians routinely accept campaign money from groups that have a financial stake in legislation.
“There is a perception by the public that government is controlled by a few special interests,” said Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters. “That makes individual citizens feel shut out. We need to reform the system.”
Campaigns these days can cost a fortune. Between advertising, postage, consultants and polling, it can take millions to run a successful campaign. This year’s spending in Idaho’s U.S. Senate race is expected to top $2 million on each side, in a state with a little more than 1 million people.
The only place to find that much money is from the deep pockets special interests, or from a personal fortune.
Sen. Trent Lott, the new Senate majority leader, said in an interview last month that he opposes the current reform proposals.
“I think that what’s being pushed in the Congress right now is not the answer,” Lott said. “Keep remembering this is America. There are those in Washington that would like to cut out participation by various individuals and groups. What is a special interest group?”
The legislation Lott opposed in the Senate would have eliminated campaign contributions from political action committees, which represent companies, organizations or other interests. Because of possible constitutional questions over such a ban, the bill offered a backup provision that instead cut the limit on PAC contributions from $5,000 to $1,000.
The legislation also would have:
Required at least 60 percent of individual contributions to come from in-state;
Cracked down on so-called “soft money” raised by political parties that’s now exempt from campaign rules;
Limited taxpayer-funded mass mailings by incumbents who are up for re- election; and
Offered discounts on advertising and postage to candidates who agreed to voluntary spending limits.
The House version also would limit large individual contributions - those over $250 - to 25 percent of spending.
Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who also opposed the bill, would support banning soft money, limiting unions from using members’ dues for political activities, and requiring the majority of campaign money to come from in-state, said his press secretary, Bryan Wilkes.
Craig might support a ban on PAC contributions if his constituents said that’s what they wanted, Wilkes said.
Lott said, “I think there is somewhat of a bum rap there. I know about the honesty and integrity of Larry Craig, and I know that he can’t be influenced by a $2,000 contribution from anybody or any group.”
Lott said he’d support some improvements in the nation’s campaign finance system, perhaps aimed at shortening campaigns to make them cheaper.
Said Leonard, “People are clearly frustrated and disgruntled with the way campaigns are run. There is too much money, it comes from the wrong places, and it’s spent on the wrong things - negative campaigning.”