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The Numbing of America - by Insider Politics

Outrage at campaign scandals seems futile when 'reform' means entrenching those in power

Every day another headline sprawls across the front pages of newspapers, reporting the latest fund-raising allegation about the Clinton administration. The Chinese government sought policy influence through campaign contributions. Donors were enticed with a night in the Lincoln bedroom. Political contributions were trafficked through the White House. Americans are outraged. But, ironically, the sensational revelations of campaign finance transgressions have a kind of numbing effect on the public.

There's something numbing, after all, about the fact that the public figure most associated with these grievous campaign finance violations - President Clinton - is also the country's most vocal advocate for campaign finance reform. Mr. Clinton is the master of this most postmodern characteristic of politics. The man who faced career-threatening allegations of womanizing is today the champion of family values. The man who "feels the pain" of the poor signed the punitive welfare bill.

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Obvious hypocrisy at the top

Many have pointed out Clinton's obvious hypocrisy. But, with respect to the campaign finance debacle, the hypocrisy of particular politicians is the least of the problem. Far more significant is the fact that the guilty parties (pun intended) are the ones writing new rules to reform the system. Is it any wonder that the American people feel simultaneously outraged and powerless? In a word, they feel numb.

Politicians of both major parties are well aware of the "insider trading" advantage they have. One example of how they intend to hold on to it is McCain-Feingold - short for the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 1997, strongly endorsed by Clinton in his State of the Union address.

McCain-Feingold has been criticized from across the political spectrum. The American Civil Liberties Union recently analyzed the bill as an effort "to insure that privileged candidates will always be able to counteract the messages of disfavored candidates and their supporters." What are the inequities between privileged and disfavored candidates? Some of the most glaring and least reported have to do with the discriminatory categories McCain-Feingold sets up between major and minor, or independent, party candidates.

Democrats and Republicans running for the United States Senate, for example, receive free broadcast time in exchange for agreeing to certain spending limits. But independent candidates in the same race must collect signatures from 5 percent of the state's voters in order to access a significantly smaller proportion of that air time. In Ohio that means 350,000 signatures; in California, 750,000. All of which would have to be processed by the state, at the cost of roughly $1 per signature.

If you're the candidate of a minor party, defined by McCain-Feingold as one that got between 5 percent and 25 percent of the vote for US Senate in the last cycle, you don't have to collect signatures to qualify for free broadcast time. But you get only a small portion - about 3 minutes out of 60. The rest gets split between major party candidates.

The bill is simply a reintroduction of an earlier version that predated all of the current scandals. The authors may have failed to note that, since 1990, one of the major-party candidates for United States Senate slipped to below 25 percent in Louisiana, Virginia, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, presumably putting that party into the "minor party" realm. As soon as Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin and their respective parties discover this, we can rest assured that this provision will be reworked.

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Ultimately, the focus of McCain-Feingold is to limit campaign spending (in ways that favor incumbents) as a remedy for political corruption. The problem with the campaign system is not that there is too much money in it but that there is such a fundamental conflict of interest at the heart of it.

The government, which is controlled by the two parties, runs the election process and runs it in a manner that virtually guarantees incumbent reelection. The winners in any given election cycle get to run the government. Consequently, the two parties compete in elections according to rules and under the supervision of a government that they control.

Structural incest

Until you intervene in that structural incest, up to and including the possibility of creating impartial nongovernmental bodies to run elections, there will be no real reform.

Term limits, leveling the election playing field for third parties, the full legalization of initiatives and referendums, and various other structural reforms - these are anathema to major party politicians. So is the growing call to depoliticize the Federal Election Commission, which is currently composed of partisan appointees. So are the efforts to create national and state-based independent parties from the Reform Party to the Green Party to the New Party and others.

These reform-oriented political parties not only advocate structural reform, they are a structural reform. The more they and the populist movement for democratic restructuring break in on the closed partnership between government and the two parties, the less futile efforts at genuine reform will be and the less numb the body politic will feel.

* Jacqueline Salit, editor of Patriot News, is an activist in the Reform Party. Since 1979 she has worked as a political consultant on dozens of local and national independent political campaigns.

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