A First Step Toward Real Campaign Finance Reform

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Woodland Hills) represents portions of Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley

Congress has gotten very good at talking about campaign finance reform. What we are not as good at is passing good campaign finance reform legislation.

For most of my adult life I have been working to fix our broken campaign finance system, helping draft reforms in California and fighting for real reform in Washington. I was recently appointed to the campaign finance task force in Congress and am doing all I can to pass the McCain-Feingold bill (known in the House as the Shays-Meehan Campaign Finance Reform Act) as soon as possible.

In the last Congress, a majority of senators and representatives, both Democrat and Republican, overcame a Republican leadership that was trying to kill real reform. After years of trying, we were finally going to enact meaningful change. Unfortunately, a vocal and powerful minority of Republicans managed to delay reform until Congress adjourned last fall.

At the start of this Congress, the new speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), promised a new spirit of bipartisanship. The Democratic leader, Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), agreed that we needed to put partisan differences behind us and move on with the business of the country.

An obvious place to start is to pass the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill for which we all have worked so hard. If we can come together to improve the way in which our political campaigns are funded, we can set the groundwork for bipartisan cooperation on health maintenance organization reform, education, and Social Security and Medicare.

Unfortunately the Republican leadership in the House has decided to put off campaign finance--again. On April 14, I joined 195 of my colleagues in signing a discharge petition. Since then, more people have signed, bringing the number to 202. If we can get 16 more members of Congress to sign, then Shays-Meehan will be considered by the House immediately.

On May 18, Speaker Hastert told the Associated Press that campaign finance reform isn't likely to see the light of day before September. Although he claims there isn't room on the calendar to consider campaign finance reform before then, the leadership has canceled 11 working days--for lack of legislation on which to work. In fact, the leadership canceled the entire legislative week following Memorial Day.

Everyone knows that running for office has become an exercise in running after cash. And everyone knows this is wrong.

Consider: In 1976, candidates spent $115 million running for Congress. By 1986, that had risen to $451 million. By 1996, candidates spent $765 million--nearly $3 for every man, woman and child in the United States. And most of that money was spent in the one-tenth of the districts that are "swing districts" with competitive races.

Worse, special interests will spend more than $600 million next year on "soft money" and phony "issue ads"--special interests pushing special agendas under the guise of education.

At best, this relentless pursuit of money creates the appearance of undue influence.

The first step toward fixing the problem is the Shays-Meehan Act, which was reintroduced earlier this year.

Shays-Meehan, named for Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin Meehan (D-Mass.), the bill's authors, would close one of the largest loopholes in our campaign finance laws. This loophole allows corporations and special interests to spend millions of dollars to affect federal elections.

This money goes to political parties, which turn around and spend it supposedly on "party building"--convincing voters that their party is the source of all that is just and good and that the other party is the source of all that is evil and wrong. In fact, loopholes allow this soft money to be used to praise a candidate for Congress while condemning his or her opponent.

Soft money distorts the political process by shifting the focus from individual candidates and campaigns to artificial issues, and often overly partisan hyperbole.

Soft money also makes it virtually impossible for candidates to ignore the money chase. To battle the barrage of outside cash, candidates must spend more and more time raising their own money--which means less and less time talking to voters and learning the issues.

It is important for elected officials to understand just how important campaign finance reform is to the American people. All of us, members of Congress, candidates and voters, must demand that Shays-Meehan be given a fair hearing in the House and the Senate, and that it become law.

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