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"Matt Keller, lobbyist for Common Cause,"

by Matt Keller July/August 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

Jamin Raskin's essential premise in "Race, Poverty and the 'Wealth Primary that people without money are excluded from any meaningful role in the political process, while people with a lot of money dictate the terms and the content of political debate, is right on target.

Raskin lays some blame for the current system at the feet of Common Cause because groups like ours frame this issue as an "ethics in government issue" - not, in his words, as a "democratic imperative." This is a false dichotomy and a misplaced critique. Ethics are imperative to democracy, and Common Cause for more than 25 years has been at the forefront of fighting for the democratic imperative of an informed, empowered citizenry, while at the same time fighting the power of big money -be it Republican or Democrat.

The fact is that if the process of electing government officials were better, if we held our elected representatives to a higher ethical standard, and if campaigns were more open and competitive to candidates of modest means, then the poor would have better representation in government. Working for a more honest electoral process and justice for the poor need not be mutually exclusive.

At the state and local level, Common Cause has been at the forefront of efforts to enact public financing as a component of comprehensive reform. Largely as a result of our efforts, eleven states now offer some form of public financing to candidates.

This past November, Common Cause worked with a broad coalition to help enact Maine's Clean Election Act - a sweeping reform initiative that offers full public financing to legislative and statewide candidates who raise a threshold number of very small contributions and agree not to raise or spend additional private money. The law also provides matching funds to candidates who are targeted by independent expenditures. The Maine law is now being looked upon as a model in many other states.

In some states, the climate may be right for Common Cause to focus on passage of full public financing laws similar to the Maine Clean Election Act. However, in other states and localities, because of the political climate and other factors, it may not be the most appropriate reform to pursue. In places where there does not appear to be a realistic opportunity to pass full public financing, Common Cause is pursuing other significant and effective reforms, such as partial public financing, improved disclosure and greater restrictions on special-interest money.

In the 105th Congress, Common Cause sees no realistic chance of passing federal reform legislation that includes public financing. We are instead supporting bipartisan, comprehensive reform bills, introduced in the Senate by John McCain (R-AZ) and Russell Feingold (D-WI), and in the House by Congressmen Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Martin Meehan (D-MA), that greatly restrict the role of special-interest money in elections and provide free and reduced-cost television time and other benefits to candidates who limit their spending. A key provision in both bills is a total ban on soft money - the huge, unregulated contributions pouring into the political parties from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals. Without closing this loophole created by the Federal Election Commission, even a public financing law would not reform our current system to the point where the voices of the poor are heard.

Some organizations have criticized these bipartisan reforms for not going far enough. In their view, full public financing is the only solution, and anything else is not "real" reform. While there is nothing wrong with promoting full public financing as an ideal solution, we believe it is counterproductive when the "perfect" is used as the enemy of the "good."

The McCain-Feingold bill is not perfect. But, if enacted, the role of big money in Congress, particularly soft money, will be significantly diminished, and the voices of moderate- and low-income citizens would at least have the opportunity to be heard - an opportunity that does not exist under the current corrupting campaign finance system.


The lead article in the March/April 1997 P&R, by Prof Jamin Raskin of the Amer. Univ. Law School, "Race Poverty & the 'Wealth Primary', " urged those working to end racism and poverty to make campaign finance reform a priority item, and criticized several liberal groups that were seeking to operate within the current system or advocating moderate reform, rather than public financing of campaigns, along the lines of what Maine voters recently passed. Comments by Sen. Russell Feingold and Ellen Malcolm of EMILY's List appeared in our May/June issue, and below we offer a final comment, by Common Cause, as well as the text of the recent "going-out-of-business" statement by a major liberal PA C, the Hollywood Women 's Political Caucus. (New P&R readers can obtain both the Raskin piece and the two commentaries from our last issue by sending us a SASE with 55C postage).


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