January 1997 Home   Newsletters

February 1997

March 1997

President's Message (Astrid Monson)
League Wins One for Now (Astrid Monson)
Urgent Appeal for Vote Counters (Arlene Ellis)
Neighborhood Board (Evangeline Funk)
Nominating Committee Report
Orientation Meeting (Grace Furukawa)
Making Democracy Work

President's Message

"Campaign finance reform" has become everybody's favorite cause. A couple of years ago President Clinton and House Speaker Gingrich publicly shook hands and agreed to work together to bring ii about. Nothing happened. A commission was supposed to find a way to cure what was increasingly becoming a cancer on the body politic, but it was never appointed, and the tumor continued to grow. The money collected to pay for campaign literature and TV spots began to amount to hundreds of millions nationally. The public lost confidence in the system as they saw huge amounts being contributed by the gun lobby, the tobacco interests, the timber industry, and the like. The 1996 campaign created so much scandal that both houses of Congress and both political parties are now promising to do something about it.

But what? At various political levels we already have laws limiting the amounts that can be contributed by individuals, corporations, or other groups, per candidate, per campaign. We have laws requiring full public disclosure of the amounts and payers of contributions. But employers have learned to "bundle". They get their employees each to pay up to the maximum permitted and then reimburse them under the table.

Non-profit organizations are set up for "educational purposes", so licit unlimited amounts of money to "get out the vote" or "discus., issues"   money which all agree is then used to promote the interests of a specific political party or candidate.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that we cannot limit the amount of his own money a candidate chooses to spend on his own campaign. There seems to be nothing, however, to keep a candidate from "loaning" himself unlimited amounts, or accepting such loans from others, leaving the repayment to some indefinite date in the future, or perhaps, never.

In a recent commentary in the Advertiser, Bob Dye put it like this:

"Candidates continue to circumvent the intent of contribution limits, by accepting loans (wink, wink) of any amount. And it is virtually impossible for anyone to know where the money really comes from. .. . Allowing lenders to influence elections, in ways unknown to us, and far beyond our means to counter, takes away the only meaningful structure we have to express our political will."

Last July the LWVUS issued an "action alert" to all State and local Leagues in support of the then-pending comprehensive, bipartisan "Clean Congress Act", H.R.2566. At the time there were already a number of other campaign finance reform bills before Congress   but those proposed by Democrats were opposed by Republicans, and vice versa, and they were only partial measures at best. The bi-partisan bill did not pass. Naturally, incumbents who financed their successful campaigns with large contributions from well-heeled sources were reluctant to change the system, if for no other reason than that getting money in small amounts is a lot harder and more time-consuming. It has been estimated that even now raising funds for the next election takes an average of 30% of a member of Congress's time. No one wants to make this 60%.

Any system of financing campaigns through voluntary contributions naturally works to the advantage of incumbents. They are in a position to do favors, they have dealt with the community's business executives and others interested in legislative or administrative action, they have paid staffs and other resources a challenger almost never has. Even if we cannot yet effectively limit the amounts a candidate can raise or where he gets the money from, at least we ought to try to level the playing field enough to give the challenger a chance.

A number of ways have been proposed and are being used to do this. One is limited public funding available to all candidates who meet certain minimum requirements   it comes out of the dollar or two we authorize to be taken out of our annual income tax. Even though the amounts available cannot match what an average incumbency can raise, they can at least enable the relatively politically unknown to get a foothold.

Another proposal that has been around quite a while would require TV, radio, or other mas media to provide a certain amount of free time during prime viewing or listening hours for candidates to state their position on issues. As might be expected, this is opposed by the producers   they lose the income they would make, and , they ask, does everybody running for a given job have to be given free time? If the requirement only covers "major" candidates or those with a significant percentage of the vote in the last election, or shown by current polls, then where is the level playing field we are seeking?

Ironically much of this campaign money is spent on 30second sound bites which provide voters with catchy slogans to make a candidate look good, or nasty put-downs of the other guy, or far-fetched claims that cannot be substantiated. In 1994 Honolulu League conducted a much-praised "Ad Watch", in which we analyzed hundreds of TV and print ads put out by candidates for Mayor and Governor. Those that were factual and provided voters with useful information about where the candidate stood on issues and what he or she had actually done or proposed to do about them were a small minority. Unfortunately, these TV and newspaper ads form the basis on which large numbers make their political decisions. In 1994, the Clinton administration's health plan was destroyed by a well financed TV ad campaign which flooded the air-waves for weeks. It was sponsored by vested interests in the present health care system, which it called socialistic, warned patients that they would no longer be allowed to choose their own doctors, and alleged that the quality of health care would decline. The government, they said, would be in control of "one seventh of the national economy". Before the ad campaign, public opinion favored most elements of the program, including universal coverage and control of skyrocketing costs. At the end, there was little support and the program died.

There is no question that we need campaign finance reform. But we also need something else   education of the voters to look behind the campaign slogans, to ask themselves who is for and against what, and why, and to base their decisions not on the ads they see on TV but on which candidate they think is most likely to help ordinary people cope with the problems they face   education, jobs, health care, housing, and the stability of their communities. Perhaps, the, the millions poured into campaigns would no longer be able to buy their present degree of political influence, which plays so large a part in destroying the people's belief in democracy. And perhaps big contributors would be less willing to contribute, which would probably be a very good thing indeed.

Astrid Monson

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