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Shaping campaign finance reform

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I recently caught an interview with Terry McAulliffe who shared a frank and candid view of politics and presidential campaigns, as the head of the DNC till 2005 who worked on campaigns from Carter to Clinton.

He related among other things, what a "knife fight" the game is and how, for better or worse you have to match the intensity of the GOP whose go-to tactic dating back to "Tricky Dick" has perennially been to slime opponents and stage manipulative stunts.

He faulted the Kerry campaign for not going on the offensive after being swift-boatted, using good evidence to paint Bush as a Vietnam avoider while Kerry had killed enemy troops and been shot at. McAuliffe insisted a candidate can't get to the finish line without showing high-test passion, and just as important, the ability to raise money - lots and lots of money. He explained that upon announcing candidacy, the period of initial money raising is essentially the "first primary".

This led me to an idea with respect to campaign finance reform.

We've been hearing for quite some time that corporations and lobbies who heavily fund candidates show astonishing returns on their "investments".

One need only look at Halliburton, the defense contractor whose contracts multiplied a staggering 600 fold under Cheney, er, I mean Bush, from their Clinton era contracts. The no-bid awards and forgiveness for gouging and double-billing only added insult to injury.

As the incoming CEO of Halliburton in 1995, one of Cheney's first acts was to double campaign contributions and many suspect his forceful hand in pushing us into war in Iraq was designed to benefit his old firm.

Advocates of public financing of campaigning estimate in cost analyses that taxpayers would save between 10-100 dollars for every dollar spent on public funding. This is because it would directly reduce the influence of deep pocketed corporations, PACs, SIGs, foreign interests and religious factions whose needs become government business right after election.

We know public funding would restore a simpler, less corruptable government and significantly free up congress members from fundraising, a chore that now consumes up to half their days.

At least one new watchdog group has been launched to closely track how this new Congress' donations convert to private benefits. Monday's LA Times ran an article entitled "Lobbyists find new Congress is open for business", indicating that although things may have incrementally shifted, Congressional offices are still speaking to lobbies, some continuing to consider the tempting offers of campaign contributions.

Mr. McAuliffe's comments underscore how ingrained a part of our political system this is, particularly in presidential politics, an unfortunate reality. A fiercely loyal defender of the Clinton campaigns, he almost reaches the point of implying ethics lapses in Clinton/Gore fundraising were borne out out of the desperate competitiveness needed in any serious presidential bid where every effort must be made to reach people far and wide to counter negative attacks.

While there are some plans for public financing being bounced about, I wondered about that particular statement of McAuliffe's, the initial burst of fundraising ostensibly being the "first primary".

In the current system, any potential candidate with the intent of ending corporate influenced corruption would undoubtedly be shunned by big money, leaving them decisively behind. This essentially gives Corporate America a greater voice then the actual population, leaving us to choose the lesser of two evils that ultimately get nominated.

What if we were to have a public financing system where every US citizen was given a "virtual wallet" representing an amount of money that government would apply to the campaigns of presidential candidates of their choice in a particular election cycle.

For example, each citizen could be staked with a certain amount of "V-dollars" beginning after the mid-term elections. Any portion of this virtual wallet could be committed to any presidential candidate once they announced their exploratory committee, or funds could be directed to multiple candidates as the elections progress. Naturally it would be wiser to hold back a certain amount until after the conventions, or there could be a second amount allocated after the nominations. But people would conceivably free to "contribute" as they wish.

Where would the money come from? The elimination of earmarks, pork barrel projects and "corporate welfare" subsidies. According to Citizens Against Government Waste's annual "Congressional Pig Book" there were 9,963 projects in the 11 appropriations bills for fiscal 2006, costing taxpayers a record $29 billion, up about 30% since 2003. These would be easily abolished by requiring individual review and a separate vote for each and every pet project.

The administration of allocating payments could be done via the web, or through local elections boards by a mail-in form.

Of course, anyone would be free to add their own real money at any time, and this could be encouraged by the government matching out of pocket amounts.

This could also go hand in hand with the idea of multiple-choice ballots, where voters could pick a first and second choice candidate. This would mean a vote for a longshot candidate would not necessarily be wasted and would more closely indicate the intent of a voter for purposes of tracking opinion and confidence. When a candidate failed to get a certain percentage of the overall votes, their first choice votes would be discarded and second choice votes from those voters would be attributed to any candidate that did make a minimum share. This is already in place and working in certain California districts.

This would keep the final field small, discouraging celebs, glory seekers and yahoos to run just because the government was paying the tab. Yet at the same time, it would give unprecedented opportunity to serious candidates who had great public support but not so much cash.

In terms of realizing true democracy, this would to me represent more closely the founding fathers' ideal to be a government run for and by the people. We have the technology now to easily register our approval or disapproval of eBay sellers, but not our elected leaders?

With so many lawmakers currrently bought-and-paid-for, there is sure to be resistance. Naturally, the capitalist/corporatists will cry foul, as this will strike to the heart of their successful formulae, but it will be hard for them to explain why every citizen should not be given this, a greater share in the democratic process.

I think it is the right time now to discuss this matter as there is a strong shot of seeing a Democratic president in 2008 that might be willing to sign into law a strong reform in his/her first 100 hours, ending the growing blight of big money translating into a controlling share of political power.

So what do you think, Time Magazine Person of the Year? Is this silly? Too ambitious? Has it already been proposed in some form? I'd love to hear your thoughts, criticisms, tweaks and alternatives.
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(OpEdNews Contributing Editor since October 2006) Inner city schoolteacher from New York, mostly covering media manipulation. I put election/finance reform ahead of all issues but also advocate for fiscal conservatism, ethics in journalism and (more...)

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