Keep up the Fight to Regain Democracy

The status quo for corruption won another battle on October 19 when Senate Republicans for the fourth straight year blocked a vote on campaign finance reform. But 89-year-old Granny D is still out there, walking 10 miles a day, trying to raise an army to win the war.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, who led the GOP filibuster, and Majority Leader Trent Lott were smug after supporters of campaign finance reform gained majorities in two test votes but fell seven short of the 60 needed to cut off the filibuster.

In a statement on her web site (www.grannyd.com) after the latest sidelining of the relatively modest McCain-Feingold bill, which would have eliminated the unregulated "soft money" transfers from corporations to the political parties, Doris "Granny D" Haddock applauded the efforts of Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and John McCain, R-Ariz. She also said she was encouraged that the majority of senators voting for reform continues to grow. Eight Republicans joined the 45 Democrats to call for a vote on the soft-money ban.

"The most important reforms are the hardest to win. But we always win if we just keep going," she said. "At our current rate of changing minds in the Senate, we will win in 2000 or in 2001," she predicted. [See her letter on page 4.]

McCain said he and Feingold might try to add their bill as an amendment to other legislation as Congress tries to wrap up its business for the year. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., also said he was prepared to offer a "states' rights" amendment to allow states to offer public financing to candidates for Congress who agree to limit their spending. Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine and Arizona already have adopted "Clean Money" plans setting up funds for candidates who voluntarily limit their spending.

Drastic reform is needed because candidates for federal office and the national parties are addicted to corporate money. They raised $1.5 billion in the 1998 election cycle, with most of it coming from corporations, their PACs and their executives. Small individual donations (less than $200) amounted to just 17 percent of the total contributions for winning U.S. House and Senate candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Actual voters are close to becoming irrelevant in big-time politics.

Robert McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communications Politics in Dubious Times [University of Illinois Press], noted that the Telecommunications Act in 1996 -- the first major rewriting of communications law in 62 years -- was drawn virtually without public input. The bill, which relaxed ownership limits on radio and TV stations, handed out more TV broadcasting spectrum to existing licensees and cleared the way for the concentration of media ownership by a few conglomerates, was hashed out behind the scenes by corporate lobbyists.

The biggest giveaway was a clause that required the FCC to give existing stations the new frequencies made available by the development of digital TV -- free of charge. Bob Dole, then Senate Majority Leader, protested that the spectrum giveaway was corporate welfare and he would not it pass without substantial hearings, McChesney noted. However, Dole was convinced to quit the Senate to devote full time to his presidential campaign. The first act of new Majority Leader Trent Lott was to make it known that the public hearings would not be necessary. The spectrum, valued as much as $100 billion, was awarded to the existing stations.

How did this happen? The communications and electronics industry invested heavily in congressional candidates, donating $23.7 million in 1995-96, according to the Center for Responsive Politics That investment surely will pay off countless times over in the next few years.

But that is small change when compared with the $154.4 million invested in Congress and the political parties by the financial services, insurance and real estate industry in 1997-98, the Center reported (see www.opensecrets.org). That largess floated the banking deregulation bill that appears headed for final passage after congressional negotiators reached agreement with the White House recently. The bill would do away with Depression-era regulations, clearing the way for a consolidation of banks, insurance companies and securities brokerages into national and multinational financial service conglomerates [see Wayne O'Leary's article, "Through a Glass Steagall Darkly," on page 14 and Molly Ivins' column on page 22.]. Independent banks, insurance companies and securities dealers likely will go the way of locally owned radio and TV stations.

The real estate industry, which spent $37.8 million of that total, pushed lawmakers to bar financial services companies and banks from engaging in most real estate activities and also is interested in a new bankruptcy bill that will come down harder on debtors. The insurance industry, which spent $31.2 million, also has been heavily involved in fighting health care reform, whch is why we that has been bottled up in Congress.

Activists will be heading to Seattle at the end of November to protest the encroachment of the World Trade Organization and "free trade" as the ruling principle over national sovereignty. When it comes to securing the rights of multinational corporations, President Bill Clinton and Congress have acted in a bipartisan fashion to give the corporations everything they demanded. But it will do no good for pro-democracy activists to disrupt the WTO meeting if all the trade ministers have to do is move the meeting to Singapore, or some other authoritarian locale where the police can be relied upon to keep the streets clear, next year.

We also must change the political climate that allows corruption to flourish. "As long as election campaigns are privately financed, big corporations and the rich will continue to control our democracy just as they control our economy," said Ronnie Dugger, co-chairman of the Alliance for Democracy, at an October 26 rally on the Capitol steps, as he accused Congress of crimes against democracy. "Only publicly financed campaigns will break their stranglehold," he said.

Replacement of at least eight GOP senators will be needed to put the fear of voters back into Congress and get them to pass campaign finance reform. If we're going to that trouble, we might as well push for public financing, which will let members of Congress stop renting their votes to the corporations.

Among the 19 Republican seats up for election next year are those given up by Connie Mack of Florida and the late John Chafee in Rhode Island. Freshmen Republicans who are vulnerable include John Ashcroft in Missouri, Spencer Abraham in Michigan, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Bill Frist of Tennessee, Rod Grams of Minnesota and Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania. Progressive challengers should be competitive against Conrad Burns in Montana, Slade Gorton of Washington, James Jeffords of Vermont, William Roth in Delaware and Olympia Snowe of Maine. (Jeffords and Snowe supported the McCain-Feingold bill.) Orrin Hatch of Utah, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, John Kyl of Arizona, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Craig Thomas of Wyoming also are up for re-election and they deserve opponents who will promote public financing.

Dugger of the Alliance for Democracy proposed that voters sign the following "Voters' Pledge":

"I pledge that hereafter I will vote in every federal election until we get our country back and that, regardless of political party, I will count it heavily against any candidate for federal office who fails to publicly endorse and, if in office, actively support the principle of full public funding of all federal elections."

Send the pledge, along with your name, date, address, phone number and email address, if applicable, to the Alliance for Democracy, 681 Main St., Waltham MA 02451. The Alliance is coordinating what it hopes will be a year-long series of public events to build a groundswell of support for public funding. Also contact Public Campaign, phone: 202-293-0222; (www.publicampaign.org) for more information on public financing of campaigns.

The health not only of Main Street but also of our democracy may depend upon our rising to the challenge. -- J.M.C.

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