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Congress Can Reform – Honest

By Asa Hutchinson and Tom Allen
Monday, August 4, 1997; Page A19

Will the 105th be the first Congress in 20 years to curb the influence of big money in politics?

Or will this Congress spend millions of dollars investigating campaign finances without legislating reforms to stop the worst abuses?

For many freshman members – both Republicans and Democrats – the 1996 campaign spending free-for-all was a disturbing introduction to national politics. We are, as third-term Tennessee Rep. Zach Wamp put it, "still-warm-to-reform." Rep. Wamp is with us because he knows that we came to Washington determined to act, not to accept the conventional wisdom that Congress is incapable of campaign finance reform.

A task force of Republican and Democratic freshmen spent five months working across party and ideological lines to hammer out the Bipartisan Campaign Integrity, Act of 1997.

This bill bans "soft money," taking the biggest of the big money out of a corrupted campaign finance system. If it were already law, the $100,000, $500,000 and $1 million contributions to the national parties – the major focus of the current hearings – would have been prohibited.

This bill also tightens candidate disclosure rules. It eliminates the "best efforts made" loophole by requiring candidates to return donations of $200 or larger if they cannot identify the donor's occupation and employer. It also requires disclosure for "third-party" radio and television advertisements.

In 1996 advertisements billed as "issue advocacy" flooded the airwaves in congressional districts nationwide, often with little or no information to reveal the sponsors or how much they spent. Our bill requires any group, including nonprofit organizations and labor unions, to report the name of the group, its principal officer, its address and telephone number and the amount of its expenditure, provided that the group spent more than $25,000 to run television or radio ads containing the name or likeness of a candidate.

Some who oppose our bill claim that simple broadcast disclosure requirements somehow restrict freedom of speech. We fully support, indeed defend, the right of any organization to buy election-year advertisements. But we also defend the right of the American people to know who is spending money to influence their votes. This is not restricting information; it is increasing information. Why would any organization that stands by its message and tactics fear increased voter information?

This bill is significant reform. It addresses the main concerns raised by Democratic and Republican leaders who have joined the American people in demanding change. Presidents George Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford have urged the 105th Congress to ban soft money.

Our bill does that. Our bill also incorporates the major points identified by former vice president Walter Mondale and former senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker as necessary for immediate reform. And, as they wisely advise, our bill avoids "attempts to gain or maintain partisan advantage."

This bill is simple and straightforward for a reason. We want this bill to pass this year. We avoided the pitfalls that have become deal breakers to other reform measures. Whatever the merits of more comprehensive reforms, they have not succeeded in achieving broad, bipartisan support. They are therefore unlikely to become law in this Congress. And we must act in this Congress. Otherwise, we risk an increasingly alienated electorate.

As a man from Peaks Island, Maine, wrote in a note accompanying his $20 contribution last fall, "When you get to Washington, don't forget the people from the grass roots who sent you there." Or, as an Arkansas woman wrote to her local newspaper: "We voters – and those of us who no longer vote – know that elections and the legislative process are controlled by those with the power and the money. Every year, elections cost more money, politicians do whatever they must to get it, and the powerful give whatever is necessary to get their needs met. What the rest of us think is immaterial."

When voters like this feel that their voices are irrelevant beside the big-money influences, we must acknowledge that we have a crisis of confidence among the electorate.

It will be an embarrassment if Congress spends months investigating campaign finance abuses – almost exclusively traceable to the volume and influence of soft money – and then fails to act. The American people deserve better than the 1996 campaign. Our bill will help to restore their faith in their political institutions and their elected officials.

Asa Hutchinson is a Republican representative from Arkansas; Tom Allen is a Democratic representative from Maine. They co-chair the Bipartisan Freshman Campaign Finance Reform Task Force.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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