My, my, my, what a disgusting spectacle. Just as the Republicans had tied themselves into a perfect snit of outrage over the gross excesses and corruption of our campaign financing system - two Republican senators called for Attorney General Janet Reno to be fired, and Sen. Bob Smith of Maine cried out, “The biggest scandal in the history of the republic! Everything about this guy is a scandal!” - at that exact point, they all trooped into the Senate chamber and voted to do not one single thing to fix it.
Of course not: The Republicans raised half again as much money as the Democrats last year under the current system - 50 percent more soft money, an advantage that Majority Leader Trent Lott will forgo when hell freezes over.
Even so, Lott was reduced to rigging the debate through some hoary parliamentary maneuvers in order to kill off the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Three Republicans joined 45 Democrats in refusing to go along with Lott’s “poison pill” amendment, and he had to pull it down. He barred any amendment except his own from coming to the floor. Then, eight Republicans joined the Democrats in an effort to bring the bill itself up for debate, but the 53-vote majority was still seven shy of the 60 votes needed.
Lott and Sen. Mitch McConnell, leader of the anti-reform forces, then smirked and postured over their “victory.”
Even that performance was not as nauseating as the two of them pretending that their objection to campaign finance reform is based on the free speech clause of the First Amendment. As one who has spent a great deal of time over the years defending the First Amendment, I can assure you that Lott and McConnell are no friends of the First; both supported the grossly unconstitutional and erroneously named Communications Decency Act so recently and satisfactorily thrown out by the Supreme Court.
Both senators referred sarcastically to “fuss in the media” about campaign finance reform, as though the open sewage system of campaign financing was just a little something that had been invented for a slow news day. The media, for rather obvious reasons of our own, are considerably more caring about free speech than either Lott or McConnell has ever proved to be.
Meg Greenfield, in a recent essay in Newsweek, described the hollow proceedings in Washington as a world where everything is illegal but nothing is wrong. With all due respect, I think she got it exactly backward: In American politics, nothing is illegal and everything is wrong.
Just to remind you how the legalized bribery actually works, here are some recent examples collected by Common Cause:
The recent budget deal included a provision to funnel a gas tax increase into the federal highway fund, yielding an additional $7 billion for highways. That money was to have gone to pay down the deficit, but highway builders lobbied hard for more highway money - and gave $3 million in political contributions.
Broadcasters who received billions of dollars’ worth of digital spectrum rights gave $5 million in soft money to the two major political parties.
Oil and chemical companies will have $1.7 billion annually because the budget deal did not reimpose Superfund taxes. Two business coalitions representing the firms have given $24 million in soft money to both parties during the past six years.
Golden Rule Insurance will get a boost for its medical savings account business because the budget deal lets some Medicare recipients get health care coverage through the accounts. The company and its executives gave $800,000 in soft money since 1991, mostly to Republicans.
The most telling factoid during the abortive debate on campaign financing came from McConnell himself: He informs us that the total cost of running a federal election cycle comes to $3.89 per citizen - about the price of a Big Mac meal.
That’s the answer right there. We each put in $3.89 and get all the other money out of politics. Hey, Texas used to have a poll tax higher than that (in constant dollars, anyway). The check-off for public funding of presidential campaigns is at $3 now; bump it to $3.89 and we solve the whole problem. And when the pols are running on our money, we can say no to negative ads, to smear campaigns and all the rest of it. They can just debate one another on television, the same way politicians do it in civilized nations.
I know I’m optimistic to the point of idiocy, but I honestly believe that Lott and McConnell have done us a favor by being so small-minded. One more election cycle under the current system and we are going to get better than the McCain-Feingold reforms - we’re going to get public campaign financing.