As the Senate once again considers campaign finance reform, it should ignore voices that say we can't solve all of the problems, that campaigns cost less than some corporate advertising budgets and that it's too hard predicting the precise effect some proposals might have. Just because we'll never have a perfect system doesn't mean we can't do better.
Comparing elections to selling soap is demeaning to voters. And improving democracy shouldn't be held hostage to fears and uncertainty. Instead of accepting the status quo, senators should vote on changes that can begin to give elections back to the voters.
The place to start is to stop the corrosive flow of huge soft-money contributions from corporations, labor unions and individuals that has become the narcotic of our national parties. Fortunately, the American people are convinced this step should be taken. More than 200 business leaders have now endorsed it. Majorities in both the House and Senate support a ban. The evidence is overwhelming. The nation has made up its mind on soft money and the time has come to act.
Soft-money reform involves three issues that senators, whose decisive turn it now is, should debate and have their votes counted on. First, should corporations and labor unions be allowed to make contributions from their general treasuries? Since 1907 federal law has prohibited corporate contributions in federal elections. In 1947 Congress passed a similar ban on unions.
The principle behind these laws was simple. Corporations and unions are granted special legal privileges so they can serve as great engines of our economy. The wealth they amass from those privileges should not be used to give them an unfair advantage in the political arena. This principle is as sound today as it was when these prohibitions were enacted.
Second, what is the appropriate amount that individuals should be allowed to contribute? Congress enacted limits on individual contributions in 1974. The Supreme Court upheld them two years later, agreeing that Congress could set limits to protect the integrity of government and promote public confidence in the political process. This principle continues to support a ban on unlimited soft-money contributions from individuals. It is also legitimate to ask whether current limits should be adjusted after 25 years.
In considering this question, legislators should recognize that the current $1,000 limit on contributions was the result of the kind of legislative deliberations that are now needed. When Congress considered reform legislation after Watergate, it openly debated what the limit should be. In the Senate, an initial bill reported out of committee had a $5,000 limit. The Watergate Committee later recommended a $3,000 limit in presidential campaigns.
The Senate voted on about a half-dozen alternatives, finally passing an overall $3,000 ceiling. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen stated the issue in terms that fit today as well: "The goal of limiting campaign contributions is to find that line between contributions that are so high that a candidate feels beholden to the donor and contribution levels that are so low that a nonincumbent candidate has little hope for making an effective race." The House adopted a lower limit, and the Senate yielded to the House and accepted the $1,000 limit that became law.
We recount this story not to advocate specific changes in contribution limits but to note that the $1,000 figure is not sacrosanct. Given 25 years of inflation and the prospect of abolishing soft money, now may be the time to revisit this issue. It is Congress's responsibility to decide what the appropriate limit should be. It should consider the issue, be open to compromise, and make a decision, just as Congress did 25 years ago.
The third question is whether additional reforms will be needed to support a soft-money ban, especially new rules on issue advocacy. There are honest differences about the best approach to take, and Congress should strive to find a solution. At the least, it should require that it be clear who is paying for these ads.
But if no legislative remedy can pass now, Congress should not allow lack of agreement to scuttle all other reforms. An end to soft money will go a long way toward cleaning up the system. While individual senators may prefer additional reforms, this desire should no longer be allowed to stifle necessary changes where there is agreement. The perfect should not be made the enemy of the good. The problems of the current system developed over time, and it may take time to resolve all of the issues that now confront us.
People in politics know the ethical shortcomings of the present system. Many also undoubtedly fear the uncertainty or risks that come with change. But it is time to put aside partisan calculations and take a chance for all of us.
Nancy Kassebaum Baker is a former Republican senator from Kansas. Walter F. Mondale is a former vice president, Democratic senator from Minnesota and U.S. ambassador to Japan.