Election Campaigns Have Become Money Soliciting Ventures

Evidenced by the recently passed welfare reform bill, many of our elected officials declared that they don't want any "free money" going where it's not "earned." Yet when it comes to "free money" flowing into their bank accounts, there is a black hole where reform legislation should be. "Welfare check dependency is nothing compared to the special interest check dependency of politicians," said David Donnelly of Maine Voters for Clean Elections. In fact, election campaigns have become money soliciting ventures for the financially endowed. According to the "Democracy vs. Dollar$: Talking Back Money in Politics" report by the Certain Trumpet Foundation, the cost of running for office has increased 1,000 percent in the past 20 years. In 1994, federal candidates spent a total of $724 million. This year, that total will most likely top $1 billion. Where does this money come from? Eighty percent of campaign funds come from cash constituents like Political Action Committees (PACs), and a handful large individual contributions, according to the Certain Trumpet Program (CTP). Contributions of $200 or more came from less than one-third of one percent of Americans in 1994, indicating that money influence is representative of a minority of interests. Attempts at reform have been made, but their effectiveness varies. For example, imposing term limits has been at the forefront of this movement. But this can encourage a backlash effectÑpoliticians seem more likely to accept PAC money because they know they won't be back in office. Limiting or banning PAC contributions also is a superficial solution. Many donors find ways around these caps through "soft money," or money that is dispersed through relatives, company employees or friends-- anything to vary the name on the check. Providing greater public access to politicians' money trails is an important step in reform. The National Resource Center for State and Local Campaign Finance Reform recently issued the report, "Campaign Money on the Information Highway," aimed at educating people on the benefits and strategies for posting campaign spending on the Internet. If states and politicians worked together, they could post campaign contributions on the Web, at public kiosks, and at in-house terminals for their constituents and the press, said the group. Encryption codes prevent tampering.Undisputed is the fact that campaign finance is in dire need of reform. In the current system of tracking money, political committees and lobbyists must submit stacks of paper that then must be categorized and filed. This time- and space-consuming process leaves room for error and often gets the information to the public too late-- after the election is over. "Access delayed is access denied," concluded the report. In Maryland, for example, election officials encounter "problems in monitoring and enforcing violations of campaign finance laws because of the slowness and clumsiness of tracing contributions and expenditures from paper reports." Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas and three major citiesÑNew York, San Francisco and SeattleÑcurrently have electronic campaign finance reporting systems in operation, and many other states are in the process of creating their own. On a national level, the Federal Election Commission has a Web site where the public can access information on congressional candidates. Only four states have rejected this idea-- Utah, Georgia, Nevada and South Dakota.In the meantime, such lobbying groups as the tobacco industry, the sugar industry, the National Rifle Association and United Parcel Service funnel money into our countries' decision makers bank accounts, assuming preferential treatment in return. But ensuring equal access to information on campaign financing is only one step in cracking down on the buyout of legislators. According to Ellen Miller, Director of the Center for Responsive Politics, the other three standards for reform include: enhance electoral competition so that it doesn't take so much money to win; restore public confidence by eliminating conflict of interest when big money buys politicians; and free politicians from the money chase.

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