Financial Stagnation

Faculty say real campaign finance reform is unlikely to happen

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Neither Claude Rains nor Humphrey Bogart plays a role in it, but Prof. Kay Schlozman (Political Science) finds the Congressional debate over political campaign finance reform resembles a scene from "Casablanca."

Like the film's corrupt Capt. Renault winking at the illegal activities around him, she explained, "Congress always takes the view 'I'm shocked - shocked - that such dreadful things are going on' when it discusses issues like 'soft' money or questionable contributions." For all the apparent indignation, Schlozman says, there is little substantive effort to address the problem.

From left: Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science), Prof. George Brown (Law), Prof. Kay Schlozman (Political Science), and Asst. Prof. Kevin Kersten, SJ (Communication). (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
But the controversy over political finances, such as the questionable fund-raising activities by the Clinton Administration and Democratic National Committee, is not fueled merely by cynicism and insincerity, say Schlozman and other faculty. The discord also reflects a long-standing struggle to balance the First Amendment right of free expression with a desire to guard against potentially improper political influence, they say.

The combination of a sensationalist media and a disaffected public does not bode well for an enlightened, reasoned discussion on campaign finance issues, the faculty add. Consequently, whatever reforms the president and Congress agree on are likely to be as perfunctory as Capt. Renault's style of law enforcement.

"You would have to be a very optimistic person to believe that in a country dominated by money, you can get money out of politics," said Prof. Marc Landy (Political Science). "There's a certain amount of hand-wringing, but at the end of the day I doubt you'll see much change."

"The reform debate is a collision of two very cherished ideals," said Assoc. Prof. Dale Herbeck (Communication). "One, that all voices are equal in a democracy; two, that we must protect political speech. Now, just because I happen to have a lot of money and an organization which helps me present my views, should I be restricted in some way from speaking my voice?"

Faculty cite two Supreme Court decisions in the mid-1970s as major factors in the political and campaign finance imbroglio: One equated contributing money with other forms of expression protected by the First Amendment, the other allowed corporations to set up political action committees. Whatever their other impacts, these decisions have served to hamper large-scale reform efforts, faculty said, and led to other controversies, such as the advent of "soft" money - funds contributed not to specific candidates but to their parties.

Law School Associate Dean George Brown notes the legal system has set in place clear-cut, enforceable ethics and laws about the daily operation of government, but has not yet done so in the electoral arena. Brown, who chairs the Massachusetts Ethics Commission, poses a personal, if hypothetical, question as an example.

"Let's say that, because of my position, laws restrict my ability to contribute funds to a congressman's campaign," said Brown. "What if I form a political action committee and put out ads attacking his opponent? Have I circumvented those laws or simply expressed myself?"

Faculty say the current debate does not appear to have galvanized the American public, who may view it as partisan bickering, given that both GOP and Democratic fund-raising practices have raised questions in recent years.

The media's saturation coverage of campaign finance issues may be a factor in this lack of interest, said Prof. Kevin Kersten, SJ (Communication). News organizations risk alienating their public by devoting so much attention to an event or trend they deem important that they overlook other issues of concern.

"The press has the great power of setting the agenda for public discourse," he explained. "Their decision to allocate resources to reporting one particular issue may be less important than their decision not to cover other pressing matters."

But the disinterest may have deeper and more disturbing roots, they add: People have become inured to corruption and feel increasingly isolated from the political process.

Schlozman found ample reason for concern in the national study on citizen political participation she helped conduct. Voter turnout has steadily decreased and last year reached its lowest level since 1924, while giving money for political purposes has become a far more common practice. In the 1988 campaign, she says, the richest 3 percent of the public - those making more than $125,000 a year - were responsible for 35 percent of all campaign funds, but cast only 4 percent of the votes. The percentages are unlikely to have improved since then, she says.

"Democracy is a level playing field, but not the market system," Schlozman said. "When you explore the many factors and indicators which determine how a person participates in politics, when it comes to writing checks there is only one: the size of family income. Giving money is the way we become unequal."

Another consideration in the debate over campaign finance reform, Herbeck says, is the presence of candidates like Ross Perot or Steve Forbes, who possess such immense personal wealth "they can afford to play the game on their own." A modest reform measure such as providing more free radio and television time for political purposes would seem inconsequential if a candidate could afford to buy as much as he desired.

"The goal of a democratic system is to place all citizens on an equal basis, but in practice that may be hard to achieve," Brown said. "We are not the only country to be confronting political finance issues, however. Countries such as South Korea, or those in the former East Bloc, that have more recently embraced the democratic-capitalist model grapple with how you can achieve full participation and minimize potential corruption."

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