the choice 2000
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issue: campaign finance reform
· should soft money be banned?

· should elections be publicly funded?

what they say
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'Soft money' is the watchword of this year's campaign finance reform debate, with both candidates promising reform even as they raise record amounts of money. It is estimated that both parties will raise over $500 million in soft money this year, twice as much as in 1996. Under current laws, individuals can donate up to $1,000 each to a candidate in the primaries and general-election, while political-action committees are limited to $5000 each. But there is no limit on 'soft money'--donations by corporations, lobbyists and unions to a party (rather than an individual candidate), which now account for most of the money raised during campaigns. Technically, soft money cannot be spent on candidates, but it is used for purposes like 'issues advertising' which directly benefits them.

When asked, Americans consistently say the campaign finance process should be overhauled, but they do not give the issue a very high priority. Less than one tenth of one percent of Americans give $1000 or more for political causes, and this is an issue which does not touch their lives directly--although campaign finance reformers will tell you that no issue affects us more. A bill to ban soft money, pushed in part by Sen. John McCain who made it the centerpiece of his strong insurgent campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, failed to pass in Congress last October. But the House did pass legislation this June requiring political advocacy groups to disclose their donors and expenditures. Small as it was, this was the first change in campaign fianance rules in two decades.


Neither candidate has much credibility as a reformer, though both are now trying to don that mantle.

Al Gore did co-sponsor several campaign finance reform bills during his years in Congress. But he has admitted to making illegal fundraising calls from his White House office and until recently faced the prospect of an Independent Counsel investigation for soliciting money at a Buddhist temple in San Francisco. Gore now says he has learned from his mistakes and will ban soft money if elected.. "I promise you that campaign finance reform will be the very first bill that Joe Lieberman and I send to the United States Congress, " he said during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. This prompted Green Party candidate Ralph Nader to reply: "He talked populist, but buys into corporate power. Give back the money, Mr. Gore."

George Bush has raised more money than any other candidate in history. He has no spending limits for his campaign because he has refused federal matching funds which require spending limits of approximately $67 million in a presidential campaign. His credibility as a reformer was undermined during the Republican primaries by McCain. Bush has made fewer reform proposals than Gore, and he barely mentioned the issue in his own convention address. He supports public disclosure of all funds received by candidates and was the first candidate to do so voluntarily, releasing the information on the Internet.


Should "soft money" be banned?

Gore thinks all soft money contributions from corporations, non-profits, unions and individuals should be banned. He is not accepting money from political action committees during this campaign. He challenged Mr Bush to hold twice- weekly debates instead of spending money on issues advertising. He thinks TV networks should be required to give candidates free air time. This position has been criticized as unrealistic by many observers who think the better approach might be to require public accounting of the money. As Jonathan Rausch of the Washington Post has observed: "Every time you try to plug some new 'loophole,' the laws become more tangled and self-contradictory while the money dances further out of reach. Reform can be successful only to the extent that it focuses on realistic goals such as accountability and disclosure." (August 27, 2000).

Bush proposes banning soft money contributions from corporations and unions but not individuals. He would also prohibit making such contributions when Congress is in session. He has refused federal matching funds and also rejected the idea of banning issues advertising using soft money. He has proposed 'Paycheck Protection' legislation so that union members can decide whether to direct money to political activities instead of having it automatically deducted from the checks.

Should elections be publicly funded?

Gore thinks America should eventually move towards public funding of elections. He proposes establishing an endowment fund from donations by individuals, corporations and unions toalling $7.1 billion over seven years, then using the interest from the fund to pay for House and Senate campaigns, beginning in 2008. Candidates would not be allowed to take money from other sources.

Bush does not believe in public funding of elections. He proposes that the $1000 legal limit for individual donations should be removed and all money should be given to candidates legally, so long as it is then publicly accounted for.


FRONTLINE's report "Washington's Other Scandal" looks at how both political parties contrived to bend and break the law on campaign financing.
Search the Center for Responsive Politics' Database of "Soft Money" Donations
Examine Common Cause's profiles and analysis of top donors
The New York Times Campaign Finance Issue Updates (requires free registration)
Find out which special interests are really behind "issue advocacy" ads
Use the Investigative Reporters and Editors' Campaign Finance Database
"Gore's Campaign Finance Reform Plan" (Jacob Weisberg, Slate)

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