Down with soft money

By John McCain, 1/28/2000

Last in a series.

Which of the following constitutes a violation of US law?

An American businessman in China, aware that bribery is a common business practice there, gives a Chinese Communist Party official $100 to listen to his proposal.

A subsidiary of a corporation owned by the Chinese People's Liberation Army gives $1 million apiece to the the Democratic and Republican parties in the hope that it may acquire technology that could eventually have a weapons application.

If you answered that only the businessman is in violation of our laws while the Chinese Army-owned company acted within its rights, then you know just how badly our campaign finance laws have failed our country. You know just how influential big money special interests have become in Washington. And if you are a Republican, you know just how wrong our party leaders are when they defend this rotten system by saying it's good for the party.

Most Republicans have learned the hard way that soft money corrupts our political ideals whether it comes from labor bosses and trial lawyers or big business.

Like most conservative Republicans, I came to Washington to reform government, to make it smaller and less removed in style and substance from the people we serve. We came to reduce government by stopping wasteful spending, reform our burdensome tax code, protect Social Security and Medicare, and reform our failing education system by returning control of education to states and local communities. We came to reform liability laws and deregulate industries that are the engine of future prosperity.

But we cannot reform anything until we reform the way we finance political campaigns. Until we abolish soft money, Americans will never have a government that works as hard for them as it does for special interests.

During hearings for the 1996 Telecommunications Act, every company affected by the legislation had purchased a seat at the bargaining table. Consequently, the bill tried to protect them all, a goal incompatible with competition. Consumers had no seat, and lower prices that competition promotes never materialized. Cable and phone rates went up, and huge broadcasting giants received billions of dollars in digital spectrum, property that belonged to the American people.

In the last several years, while Republicans controlled Congress, pork barrel spending has substantially increased. Tax loopholes for special interests have replaced tax relief for working families and further distorted a 44,000-page tax code that is already a complicated catalog of favors for a privileged few and a chamber of horrors for the rest. Security technology has been transferred to countries that might someday use it to threaten us, while 12,000 American enlisted personnel live on food stamps.

For the sake of soft money, Clinton administration officials debased the institutions of government. Among other things, they took money from agents of the Chinese government. They rented out the Lincoln bedroom. They sold seats on official trade missions. And they excused their shameful behavior with the observation that they had no controlling legal authority. It is past time that we gave them one.

Behind all of these disgraces, you can find six- and seven-figure special-interest checks. And that is why more and more Americans are rejecting Washington political priorities that put the battle of bucks ahead of the battle of ideas.

The 1996 Republican Party platform stated correctly that scandals in government are not limited to possible criminal violations. The public trust is violated when taxpayers' money is treated as a slush fund for special-interest groups that oppose urgently needed reforms.

It is time for all Republican leaders to practice what we preach and give our government back to the people. For instance, if we stopped giving away ethanol and oil and gas subsidies to wealthy donors, we could use the money saved to fund a three-year national school voucher test.

Now, defenders of the status quo have called campaign finance reform unilateral disarmament for the GOP. Let us tell our party leaders to stop this false defense of a failed system financed by $1 million checks from labor bosses and corporate CEOs. Tell them to stop supporting what has become the greatest obstacle to conservative reforms. Tell them it ought to be just as illegal for the Chinese Army to bribe our party as it is for Americans to bribe Chinese officials. Tell them that what's good for America is always good for the Republican Party.

John McCain is a Republican candidate for president.