Time to Come Clean

Politicians running for office are addicted to money. Dollars pour through the veins of political campaigns in ever greater amounts. All this is a daily preoccupation for members of Congress, senators, and even presidents, as well as their opponents.

Like any addiction, more is always necessary to achieve

the needed high—a small, overnight bump in the polls. Laws are stretched and loopholes are manipulated to feed the habit. Addictions always push one toward the edge of the law, and often beyond it. Restraint seems impossible, beyond one’s control. Little wonder that "money laundering" is most frequent today in two arenas: illegal drug traffic and the financing of political campaigns.

Money’s corrosive effect on the nation’s politics occurs in three ways today. First, it diminishes fundamental democratic participation. The 1996 campaign, we are told, was financed by less than 1 percent of the population—largely those with the substantial means to do so. To argue that such expenditures by the wealthy are a form of "freedom of speech" and part of what Trent Lott calls "the American way" assumes that spending is the same as speaking. It is not.

The Constitution is designed to create an equal playing field for political ideas and influence. Access to the political process in a healthy democracy should never be governed chiefly by money. Today it has become so through the insatiable appetite for campaign funds.

Second, present campaign fund raising distorts the vocation of politicians. The time and energy now spent by those in elective office to raise money detracts from their ability to govern. We elect a president to guide the affairs of state, not to be a maître d’ at 103 coffees. Of course, elected officials need to listen to their constituents. But why not, then, another 103 coffees attended by welfare recipients, recently unemployed, single-parent working mothers, and those in drug rehabilitation?

One need only read the recent autobiography of former Sen. Bill Bradley to be amazed at how much time this gifted political leader spent raising money all over the country for his re-election campaigns. The best way today for an incumbent to deter an effective opponent is not to set forth a more compelling political vision, but to gather an overwhelming "war chest" of money. All this finally affects the qualities needed to win elections today. Hucksterism is far more crucial than wisdom.

Third, we are financing a style of political campaigning that swiftly erodes common ground in the society. Seventy-five percent of the unregulated "soft money" (which we seem to tolerate, like "soft drugs" and "soft porn") is devoted to buying television time. The ads that inundate the airwaves every other fall do two things. Important political issues are reduced to absurdly simplistic sound-bites and slogans. And opponents are attacked without mercy and often without accuracy.

SO IN THE LONG RUN, what happens? Public faith in the political process shrinks still further after each campaign. Today’s tactics for fighting political battles threaten to destroy the playing field—a government resting on the informed consent and wide participation of the governed.

Politicians need to kick the money habit. And it won’t be enough to expect them to "just say no." That is why the churches should give their attention, counsel, and moral voice to this question. The Bible tells us repeatedly about the dangerous and addictive effects of riches, within one’s life and in society. Churches should interpret this wisdom in the search to liberate electoral campaigns from their enslavement to mammon.

Intervention by citizens, to whom those in elected office are accountable, will be necessary to break this addiction. A 12-step process for overcoming addictions, in fact, probably suggests a sound overall approach to campaign finance reform.

Three general goals should be set. First, strict limitations must be placed on all funds contributed to political campaigns. Second, campaigns should be financed in a way that frees those in elected office to focus on governing, and, with their opponents, on campaigning instead of fund raising. Public financing on a broad scale would need to be part of such a system.

Third, candidates should have equal, regulated, and free access to the public media. Period. Paid political television commercials are the most cash-intensive feature of political campaigns. Their growth over the last two decades has fostered today’s climate of political polarization and alienation.

Addictions die hard. But the first and most difficult step is to confront the problem honestly. Let’s start there. Campaign financing today places politicians and our democratic process in the addictive grip of money. Now, when the excesses and damaging behavior of many have become so clear, we have a chance to break this grip and come clean. The churches should be among those pointing the way to health and freedom.

WESLEY GRANBERG-MICHAELSON is general secretary of the Reformed Church in America and a member of the steering committee of the Call to Renewal.

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