November 5, 2001
This week marks the anniversary of last year's elections, a moment that was supposed to live in infamy.
The elections capped the end of the first $3 billion election campaign, the first billion-dollar presidential race, the first $100 million Senate race, the first $10 million House race and the beginning of the first contested presidential vote count in more than a century.
After the dust settled, reformers sprang into action to reduce the role of money in politics and to fix our broken electoral machinery.
The Senate passed the McCain-Feingold bill banning unlimited "soft-money" contributions and, despite opposition from Republican leaders, the House was moving toward a similar step.
There was also a growing consensus to provide substantial federal aid to states to upgrade their voting technology, and some states were even taking steps to address longstanding problems of voter disenfranchisement.
That was then.
Now, in the wake of Sept. 11, some members in Congress think reform is irrelevant. A few days ago, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took to the letters pages of the New York Times to berate the paper's editors for continuing to point to the need for reform. "With confidence in government at all-time highs, campaign-finance reform is clearly a solution in search of a problem," he wrote. "Americans ranked it near the bottom of their list of priorities before Sept. 11; now it has appropriately dropped off the list completely as the president, Congress and the country are focusing on terrorism and the economy."
McConnell is right about two things. Public trust in government has soared since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and people are not listing campaign-finance reform as a priority of the moment.
But the public has never ranked campaign-finance reform as a high priority in and of itself, when compared to bread-and-butter concerns like education, health care, safety and the environment. The more important question is whether people think that government will ever solve the problems they care about as long as money controls government decision-making -- and surveys consistently show that Americans believe their campaign-finance system needs a serious overhaul.
The underlying fundamentals of America's political economy were not changed by Sept. 11. Elections were not cancelled by the attacks, and big money certainly did not stop dominating campaigns and distorting legislation.
Just look at what's been coming out of Congress in recent weeks.
First, they rushed through a $15 billion airline industry bailout that many representatives now publicly regret because the terms were too generous to corporations, and tens of thousands of out-of-work airline workers have seen no relief.
"Bailout showed the weight of a mighty, and fast-acting, lobby," read a headline in the New York Times weeks later. The article explained how an industry that had contributed $65 million to politicians in the last 10 years and had spent an equivalent amount on top-flight lobbyists had squeezed the public purse to its benefit.
Then the banking industry, an even bigger source of campaign funds, fought tooth and nail to keep Congress from toughening laws against money laundering in its anti-terrorism bill.
Now Congress is wrestling over an economic stimulus bill and the same kind of narrow, self-interested forces are coming to bear. Instead of extending unemployment benefits and putting money in the pockets of average working people, the House passed a Republican bill that steers the bulk of its money -- $212 billion over three years -- into the hands of a group of profitable corporations and into the pockets of the wealthiest among us.
And the White House is pushing for the passage of an energy bill that directs the bulk of its subsidies to the oil, gas and mining interests that were among its biggest campaign contributors, while giving short shrift to fostering conservation and alternative energy sources.
While many of us have our hands on our hearts, saluting the flag and preparing for whatever sacrifices may be needed of us, special interests are trying to pick our pockets.
An outraged public can help stop them by calling on Congress now to back off, and by remembering that, in the long run, we need to get big money out of politics.