Unless you are tuned in to Green candidate Ralph Nader, the last days of the 2000 presidential campaign are not rich in the discussion of campaign finance reform. Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush are kicking hard to gain winning momentum from personal and pocketbook politics.
But regardless of who crosses the finish line with the most electoral votes, the huge amount of money that has driven federal elections in 2000 will emerge for reckonings in the 107th Congress and for the chief executive of the American government.
Gore makes the pitch for sweeping out the sewers of purchased access to elected officials. He says that, if elected, the first bill on his priority list is the long-stalled McCain-Feingold legislation banning soft money. Recent polling bears out the advantage of Gore's position. A Gallup survey taken in early October found that 72 percent of Americans would favor new federal laws limiting these contributions that flow unchecked to political parties, who then use the money on behalf of candidates.
Bush, who set records early in this campaign for fund-raising, got nudges from Sen. John McCain's challenge in the primaries to offer a more expansive plan for addressing the flow of money into election coffers.
Nader has made a central theme of his campaign what he sees as the abject corruption of both major parties -- and by extension their candidates and officeholders -- through the limitless gush of interest group money into the system.
Nader favors publicly funded campaigns, supported by giving taxpayers the option to direct up to $200 of their federal tax money to the campaign kitty. He advocates free broadcasting time in exchange for pledging not to take private money. He opposes soft money contributions and PAC money contributions.
The centerpiece of Bush's proposal is rapid, easily accessible disclosure by candidates and parties of the money they receive. He wants to increase the amount individuals can donate in federal races from $1,000 to $3,000. Bush proposes that lobbyists not donate to congressional campaigns while Congress is in session and that lobbyists have more stringent disclosure rules on their activity. He addresses soft money by proposing a ban on corporate soft money gifts and on unions using members' dues without express permission to support political activity with soft money gifts.
This soft money proposal reflects both the concern that such a ban is disadvantageous to Republicans (who have been more successful at raising money than Democrats) and the understanding that a complete ban faces a dicey Supreme Court challenge.
Bush also opposes a ban on ``issues'' ads.
The Bush soft money proposal is more of a political than a policy position. Unless Republicans control both Houses of Congress and the White House, organized labor is certain not to abide what it sees as a muzzle unfairly applied. Neither is there monolithic partisan support for or against the Bush approach to soft money. Witness the popular appeal of the McCain message for campaign finance changes and the fact that such a ban has passed with bipartisan votes in the U.S. House already.
Taken together, Bush's views represent a minimalist approach to campaign finance changes and adhere to current Supreme Court law, which says what campaign money buys is free speech and therefore is protected from restraint.
Gore, who has been roundly taken to task during the 2000 campaign for his fund-raising zeal during the 1996 election cycle, has a vigorous approach to campaign reforms -- with a big public price tag.
First, of course, is his commitment to McCain-Feingold. Gore also backs public financing of congressional and presidential campaigns through a Democracy Endowment fund, at a cost of $7 billion.
He is clearly in the camp that wants to test the Supreme Court's commitment to letting the soft money flow without restraint.
It is that soft money which is glutting the election system. Some watchdog groups are projecting that soft money will triple over the 1996 election cycle, to a boggling $750 million. This is above and beyond what interest groups are doing directly and what the campaigns proper have raised and are spending down the the wire.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that tracks campaign money, on Thursday calculated the Bush campaign has raised and received government matches for a total of $180.8 million; the Gore campaign has collected $131.7 million. Buchanan has received $29 million and Nader has collected $4.7. Libertarian Harry Browne is running a $1.7 million campaign.
Similar to Bush's scrutiny measures, Gore favors public disclosure of lobbying activities and advocates posting the information on the Internet for the public to view. He is against raising the individual contribution limit to a candidate. Like Nader, Gore wants more free broadcast time.
Pat Buchanan, the Reform candidate, wants to ban corporate PAC money and require politicians to limit fund-raising outside their districts to 50 percent of the total. He wants a limit of $3,000 on individual contributions.
The support behind what respondents told the Gallup pollsters, most analysts agree, is not centrally a reaction to the huge amounts of money but what people perceive that money is doing to government's integrity, ability to function fairly and efficiently and to serve the commonweal.
Campaign finance has risen on the public agenda. It may not be as high right now as education, health-care access, prescription drugs and Social Security. But the next president will be expected to pursue his version of campaign finance reform.
© 2000 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press