The Real Scandal: Campaign Financing

by Anna Manzo

We now live in an era of record corporate profits and outrageous CEO compensation while social programs put into place after the Great Depression and the civil rights era are being reformed or privatized -- welfare, Medicare, social security and healthcare. Privatized prison systems are now our fastest growing industry; Manpower Temps is the nation's largest employer.

What's behind this instability? Although sweeping campaign reform laws were enacted shortly after the 1972 Watergate scandal, corporations have managed to take enormous benefit from loopholes that allow wealthy interests to buy influence and favor in the U.S. political system, according to Paul Hendrie, publications editor with the Center for Responsive Politics, based in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.'s Public Campaign is investing in a state-by-state strategy to build an infrastructure for comprehensive federal campaign reform. "Civil rights didn't happen because a couple of groups in Washington decided that they were going to push it," says Micah Sifry, senior analyst with Public Campaign. "It happened because there was a mass movement demanding it. So our goal is to 'demonstrate' by passing broad comprehensive kinds of reforms, such as 'clean money' campaign reform." Nearly 40 states are active in the reform movement.

Meaningful campaign finance reform legislation has been blocked in Congress for years. This summer, members of the House of Representatives defied the Republican leadership and passed the Shays-Meehan Bill, which would prohibit political parties from raising and spending unlimited amounts of so-called "soft money." But this success was short-lived; similar legislation was blocked in the U.S. Senate. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, an arch opponent of reform, headed his party's campaign committee this year. He had the ability to limit funds to Republican senators up for re-election unless they voted against the bill, according to Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, an advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader.

The Senate version, the McCain-Feingold bill, was filibustered this year and needed only eight more Senators to break the filibuster before Congress adjourned in October. According to Public Citizen, these Senators were most likely to change their vote and oppose the filibuster if enough support could have been rallied: Sens. Hutchinson (R-Ark.), Campbell (R-Col.), Roth (R-Del.), Coats (R-Ind.), Lugar (R-Ind.), Grassley (R-Iowa), Brownback (R-Kansas), Abraham (R-Mich.), Bond (R-Mo.), Hagel (R-Neb.), Gregg (R-N.H.), D'Amato (R-N.Y.), DeWine (R-Ohio), Smith (R-Ore.), Frist (R-Tenn.). If you have colleagues and relatives in these states, inform them of these issues.

"Soft money" consists of funds that exceed the individual contribution limit of $1,000 to a federal candidate or $20,000 to a political party per year. Corporations and labor unions are prohibited from contributing any money to federal campaigns, yet these contributions and those from wealthy individuals are often made to non-federal accounts of national parties, who then transfer the money to state parties for "get-out-the vote" and other legal activities in a kind of "laundering" of illegal federal contributions, according to Common Cause, a Washington-D.C. lobbying organization.

The "soft money" loophole has given a rebirth to the kinds of huge individual and corporate contributions that have not been seen since Watergate. The 1996 elections for Congress and the President were the most expensive in American history, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. Together, the candidates and political parties collected some $2.4 billion in contributions and spent more than $2.2 billion. In the 1996 elections, business interests -- giving through PACs, large individual donations, and (in the case of soft money) through their corporate treasuries -- gave a combined $653 million to federal candidates and the national parties. Organized labor, giving mainly through PACs funded by union members, gave $58 million -- overwhelmingly to Democrats. Ideological groups added just $34 million to the mix.

For more information, contact Public Campaign at: 202-293-0222 (; Common Cause at 202-833-1200, ( and Public Citizen at 202-588-7780 (

Material for this column was provided by Scott Harris, public affairs director of WPKN. For in-depth interviews with individuals and organizations not ordinarily given access in mainstream media, listen to WPKN 89.5 FM Radio's "Counterpoint" from 8-10 p.m. on Mondays and "Between the Lines" Wednesdays at 8 a.m. To get a weekly taped subscription to either show, call 203-331-9756.

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