LAST WEEK the US Senate drove a Mack truck through meaningful campaign finance reform, with the so-called ''millionaire amendment,'' and you can bet that the locomotive is not far behind.
Upcoming amendments that stand to raise hard money limits are poised to crash the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Hard money, whether it is given to those who run against wealthy candidates or allowed to flow with fewer restrictions, is, combined with soft money, at the heart of what corrupts our current elections.
Many who support campaign finance reform might ask, ''Why oppose increased hard money limits at the expense of banning soft money?'' Eighty percent of all money in the election process comes in the form of hard money. In order to raise this money, a candidate or an incumbent must find individuals who will write checks for $1,000 (in addition to the $5,000 checks from political action committees). And how many people really have a thousand bucks to give to a political candidate?
During the 2000 election cycle, only one-eighth of 1 percent of voters gave a contribution of $1,000 (or more) to a candidate. And often these big checks came bundled together by wealthy interests. The reality is that ordinary citizens cannot afford to write even a $1,000 check, much less $2,000 or $3,000, which could be allowed under likely amendments to McCain-Feingold.
The ''millionaire amendment'' that passed this week would increase the existing limit by three to six times for candidates facing self-financed opponents.
By doubling or tripling the hard money limits for all candidates, we simply allow those who are already buying access to buy more. We must not measure a proposed ''reform'' by what it means for the wealthy and well-connected who can already afford to donate to political campaigns. By increasing hard money contribution limits, the amended McCain-Feingold bill would allow affluent interests to gain even more control over our election process.
Ultimately, if the Senate really wants to level the playing field, it will consider full public funding for our elections. Under full public funding, like the voluntary systems now in place in Maine and Arizona for state elections, campaigns are not about chasing money, but about the ideas and visions of those who seek public office.
If our public elections are to be truly public, we must all own this process, not just the wealthy few.
At the core of our democracy is the basic promise of political equality. It is that promise that has led to the eradication of earlier democratic barriers in our history. And it is that promise which must again be invoked today.
Thirty-five years ago this week, the United States Supreme Court struck down the poll tax, a fee charged to voters in order to vote. The nation's highest court said that economic discrimination in the political process is prohibited, eliminating a decades-old obstruction to the franchise.
Today, we face a new economic barrier to our right to vote: the current campaign finance system. Like the poll tax of the past, the present-day campaign finance system discriminates against voters based on their economic status. Under the money-drenched regime, only those with access to wealth can meaningfully participate in the political process. Measured in this light, campaign finance reform with any increases in hard money limits only makes matters worse.
The McCain-Feingold bill, as originally presented, was a first step in the right direction. If it is to be saved, the ''millionaire amendment'' must be removed and further efforts to raise contribution limits must be defeated. Otherwise, the bill can no longer be called reform.
John C. Bonifaz is director of the National Voting Rights Institute. Stephanie Wilson is director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project.
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