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Campaign Finance: Fix It

By Nancy Kassebaum Baker and Walter F. Mondale
Friday, July 18, 1997; Page A21

President Clinton has challenged Congress to "make this summer a time not of talk but of action" in fixing our broken system of campaign financing. We agree wholeheartedly.

Earlier this year the president asked the two of us, a Republican and a Democrat, to assist in the cause of bipartisan campaign finance reform. Although pessimism about the will of Congress to reform campaign finance laws is widespread, we are optimistic that the task can be achieved through a clear focus on necessary and achievable reforms, leadership and determination.

Last month, we submitted an Open Letter to the President and Congress recommending four areas in which to begin, without delay, the task of ensuring that our nation's campaign finance system serves, rather than undermines, the interests of American democracy.

First, Congress should promptly ban "soft money," the huge uncontrolled contributions to national parties and their campaign organizations that have so dismayed the public. This prohibition would do much to slow the flood of campaign money and enable the nation to adhere to the justified premise of earlier reforms, that massive amounts of money from powerful sources distort elections and government.

Second, we must ensure that "soft money" not continue its corrosive work under the thin disguise of "issue advocacy." The election law should be tightened to distinguish clearly between media advertisements that are campaign endorsements or attacks and those that genuinely debate issues. To make a "soft money" ban fully meaningful, the election law should establish consistent rules for the financing of all electioneering advertisements.

Third, disclosure rules should be broadened to ensure that voters know who is responsible for the accuracy and fairness of campaign advertisements. Increasingly, candidates are bystanders in their own campaigns, not knowing the identity of sponsors of messages that dominate the airwaves close to elections. Also, with today's technology, even last-minute contributions and expenditures can be revealed before Election Day.

Fourth, no reform will be worth much without effective enforcement. The Federal Election Commission must be strengthened. This should include the appointment of knowledgeable and independent-minded commissioners. Additionally, changes are needed to allow for the full and timely resolution of issues through the courts when the commission is deadlocked or cannot act because of lack of funds.

Significant majorities might be found for other reforms. As the debate goes forward, Congress should be encouraged to consider further steps to provide relief from the incessant treadmill of fund-raising. However, we should not delay action on those measures that can pass now.

Time is of the essence. Congressional elections are coming up next year. The presidential campaign for the year 2000 will begin soon after. Each day these elections draw closer, the passage of reform becomes even more difficult. Now is the best time to advance legislation that will provide the American people with a more effective and more equitable election process.

It is no secret that the Senate will be the first battleground for reform. There are honest differences that warrant debate there but also votes on their merits. We are confident that the Senate's leadership will recognize its responsibility to schedule campaign finance reform for early and full debate. And speaking plainly, we further believe that the American public will deem unacceptable any tactic that prevents a majority of the Senate from coming to a final vote.

We appreciate the value of Senate rules on debate. But campaign finance issues are well known to every member. Whatever any senator's individual views on campaign finance issues may be, all senators should unite in one conviction. The future of our democracy requires them to address their differences in public debate on the Senate floor and for their votes on final passage to be recorded.

Most important is to set aside attempts to gain or maintain partisan advantage. The time is now to come together to address the integrity of our national government. Restoring that integrity demands honest, bipartisan campaign finance reform.

Nancy Kassebaum Baker is a former Republican senator from Kansas. Walter F. Mondale is a former Democratic vice president and senator and a former ambassador to Japan.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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