Reforming politics


Ratification of CTBT

Our Senate's failure to ratify the CTBT was an irresponsible act of partisan politics. The vote on an issue of international importance occurred after only 3 days of debate. Despite the fact that 80% of Republicans supported the measure, virtually all Senate Republicans voted to reject the treaty, privately admitting that hatred of President Clinton was a major reason. In the least it was a national embarrassment. At most, it was a serious mistake that could lead to nuclear war and the destruction of our planet. It was clearly irresponsible.

Paying our UN dues

The US hasn't paid its UN dues since the mid 80's. Congress passed two bills authorizing payment, but Clinton vetoed both. Want to know why? New Jersey's Republican Representative Chris Smith insistence that the UN dues be tied to legislation that would withhold money to any organizations that lobby foreign governments on abortion. Yeah, you read that right. Pretty incredible isn't it? Your political system at work. Non payment of dues infuriates other countries, making them less likely to go along with things we want to accomplish. Not very smart.

Campaign finance reform

Well the McCain-Feingold bill is dead for now. Here are a couple of stories about it:

September 3, 1998 -- Battle On McCain-Feingold Begins In U. S. Senate
Opponents: McCain-Feingold is dead
Senate squashes reform bill

Here's an excerpt from the Common Cause website on this (Sep 3, 1998)

Buoyed by passage of the bipartisan Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill in the House, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), have announced they will bring up campaign finance reform next week by offering the McCain-Feingold legislation as an amendment to other legislation pending before the Senate.

Once the McCain-Feingold legislation is put forward, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott will lead an obstructionist filibuster designed to block passage of the reform legislation. A majority of Senators is already on record in favor of McCain-Feingold; however 60 votes are required to end a filibuster. A vote to end the filibuster of McCain-Feingold is expected to occur later next week.

Isn't this ridiculous?

Here's another story on the bill:


And a link to the Washington Post's special report on Campaign Finance.

The bottom line is that our system of government is a mess. And if you want to do something about it, the place to start is campaign finance reform. But how's that going to happen since there is no federal initiative process and Congress isn't going to reform campaign finance because they don't want to lose their jobs? Ron Unz wrote me:

Regarding campaign finance reform (an area where we clearly agree), since McCain-Feingold has now been defeated for 4 or 5 years in a row, generally by the same margin, I'd say its chance of passage in the foreseeable future is nil. Sophisticated political observers also are perfectly aware that many of the Democrats voting for it are doing so only because they know the Republicans will kill it for them; if it suddenly had real a chance of passing, probably at least a dozen Democrats would switch sides and vote no. Finally, whereas the original form of McCain-Feingold (back in 1995 or so) was reasonably comprehensive, it's now been watered down to the point where it doesn't really do much of anything.

What I've done during this last year is draft (probably) the most sweeping and comprehensive campaign finance reform package possible (going far, far beyond even the original version of McCain-Feingold), and spend over $800,000 of my own money (which is a HUGE amount of cash to me, since as the New Republic piece indicates, I'm not all that rich or liquid by the standards of the world) putting it on the March 2000 ballot. If it passes (which is currently unclear, since a wide range of special interests are gearing up a major campaign against it), it will thoroughly "fix" our corrupt political system in California AND probably jump-start federal reform as well. This will be even more likely to happen if we are able to get other Presidential candidates to follow McCain's lead and endorse our measure, and one of them reaches the White House. (See my recent WSJ op-ed On the other hand, if our measure is defeated, it will probably doom the chances of any major campaign reform in America for at least a decade.

In California, Ron Unz is trying to get an initiative for the March 2000 ballot that features the most ambitious campaign finance reform in the nation. Not a bad start. From the New Republic's article on Unz, Man With a Mission:

Among other things, Unz's "California Voters Bill of Rights" includes voluntary spending limits accompanied by partial public financing, a ban on corporate giving to candidates, overnight Web-based disclosure, and reasonable contribution caps (e.g., $5,000 for statewide races) that should survive a court challenge. "It's far wider-reaching than McCain-Feingold," says Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

Then Unz tossed in a real zinger. He tied these reforms to another one that would take control of the state's post-2000 census redistricting away from Governor Gray Davis and the Democratic legislature, giving it instead to a bipartisan commission of retired judges. This diabolical pairing has confounded everyone. Would Democrats cede control of redistricting to get the campaign fix of their dreams? Would Republicans swallow the public financing they loathe in order to avoid a partisan gerrymander that kills them in California and costs them their majority in the House?

"You get the feeling he takes some kind of glee when he thinks about the mischief he's making," says John Jacobs, a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. "He defies stereotype," adds Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause. "His basic strategy was essentially brilliant."

....[not surprising when a little further down the article it says]

Affirmation came at school. In second grade, Unz was tested as having a 214 IQ at a time when, as one of his former teachers recalls, the Guinness Book of World Records listed 200 as the highest on record.

I talked with a member of the California Assembly about Unz's bill and he said "It will be immediately opposed by both parties which means he's probably on the right track."

I've spent a lot of time looking into this and I think that Unz's initiative, while a great start, is not the answer and could do more harm than good. It is risky from a constitutional perspective, and there are still a number of open issues that the bill doesn't address. It could make it harder to pass additional reform. It's current support base is too weak and there isn't much time left before the election. It's unproven relative to other alternatives (Ellen Miller's).

Bill Moyers is head of the Schumann Foundation, which also seeks to reform campaign finance, but not necessarily via Unz's approach. Former California US Senator Alan Cranston also believes this is the way to make a difference.

Lara Bergthold who works with Norman Lear has been doing this a long time too (cfr is campaign finance reform):

I've been working on cfr for a long time. I used to run the Hollywood Women's Political Committee and left right after we decided to close our doors because we could no longer operate in a campaign finance system we didn't believe in. We were big supporters of the initial campaign finance iniative on the 96 ballot (before it split into two and then I think we supported the CalPirg version), and then with Norman I've helped fund the initiatives in Arizona and Maine, have given money to Ellen Miller's effort Public Campaign, and have been sitting in on board meetings of the Piper Fund ( a fund that Bill Moyers helped set up to raise money from people interested in cfr but not really focused on the minutia).

Public Campaign's (Ellen S. Miller) Clean Money Campaign Reform proposal, which is strongly backed by Bill Moyers, seems to be the best workable solution so far; it has been passed in four states and was recently (November 16, 1999) upheld as constitutional. Not only that, the ACLU supports it too!

In general, the stuff we'd like to see in a bill includes:

  • banning soft money contributions
  • limit the time you can spend the money to a small time window before the election so that less total money is required (but not making it so short so as to give the incumbent an advantage)
  • full public financing for qualified candidates who agree NOT to raise private money and to abide by spending limits
  • allocate money equally among the candidates/issues
  • a strong and non-partisan election enforcement agency

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