At the start of this new year, when all of us are making resolutions to reform and refine our individual lives, there are three areas of our common life -- or politics -- that are ripe for improvement. In all three, important preliminary steps were taken in 1985, but the critical follow-through must occur this year for the reforms to be in place by the time of the 1988 election.
Campaign finance: After years of avoiding the issue, Congress late in 1985 finally took a hard look at where its members get the money for their campaigns and the scandal that threatens the institution as a result of fund-raising practices.
The basic problem is the increasing dependence on contributions from interest-group political-action committees and the decreasing role of small individual contributions and political party financing. With PACs tripling their contributions to Senate and House candidates between the 1978 and 1984 elections and individual contributors declining, the once theoretical question of who "owns" Congress is becoming altogether too real.
The whisper on Capitol Hill is that it will take "one more big scandal" to force remedial action. But couldn't Congress for once head off a problem rather than wait to clean up the mess?
The outlines of a solution are beginning to emerge. The House, as part of the tax-reform bill it sent to the Senate, approved an amendment to provide a 100 percent tax credit for contributions up to $100 to federal candidates from residents of the same state. A bit earlier the Senate debated and refused to kill a proposal to lower the limit on PAC contributions and to set a maximum on all PAC money a House or Senate candidate can receive. That proposal is due for further debate this year.
As Michael J. Malbin of the American Enterprise Institute has suggested, combining those two approaches with an increase in the limits on political party contributions to candidates would provide a balanced and healthy change in the sources of funds for federal campaigns.
Presidential debates: A strikingly sensible report on the presidential-election process was issued last November by a blue-ribbon commission headed by veteran politicians Melvin R. Laird and Robert S. Strauss. One key recommendation: that the two parties take responsibility for the televised presidential and vice presidential debates and guarantee that their nominees will participate.
In earnest of their support, the current party chairmen, Republican Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and Democrat Paul G. Kirk, Jr., both commission members, signed a letter pledging to try to bring that about in 1988.
The only loud objection has come from the League of Women Voters, which sponsored the debates in 1976, 1980 and 1984 and wants to retain the franchise. The League has done yeoman service and might well be asked to handle the logistics and arrangements for future debates. But our elections are fought between the party nominees, and only the parties can impose the duty of debate on those nominees.
What is needed in 1986 is for the two national committees to ratify the Kirk-Fahrenkopf agreement and write it into the formal "calls" to their 1988 conventions. That way, those who begin running for the nomination will understand their obligation to participate in debates in 1988.
Election projections: In 1980 and 1984, voters in the West justifiably complained that network election projections, using actual returns and exit-poll results, told them who had been elected president before they had a chance to cast their votes.
Under pressure, the networks agreed early in 1985 to tighten their policies about projecting or characterizing results in a state before polls close in that state. But as long as poll-closing times vary across the nation, the West will continue to be bombarded with those premature Eastern "results."
Late last year, Reps. Al Swift (D-Wash.) and William M. Thomas (R-Calif.) won committee approval of a bill to set a uniform poll-closing time across the nation. It is not complex. The closing time would be 9 p.m. in the East, 8 p.m. in the Central time zone and 7 p.m. in the Mountain zone. Daylight-saving time would be extended two weeks in the Pacific time zone, so that its polls could also close at 7 p.m. and still be simultaneous with the rest of the country.
That would generally lengthen the voting day in the East and Midwest and require six or seven Western states to open polls earlier in the morning to maintain the current length of their voting day. But it would allow a national election to be a national election, unencumbered by the psychological pressures on Western voters from the projections of results in the Eastern half of the country.
The bill is ready for debate in the House. Passage in 1986 would allow the legislatures to make necessary adjustments for the 1988 election.
Action on these three reforms could make 1986 a banner year for the health of our political system.