How To Clean Up The Mess

It happens all the time: whenever I go on a radio show or speak to voters, I'm inevitably confronted by irate people disgusted with the political system. And who can blame them? Just this week, there were reports of an Indonesian landscaper giving large sums to the Democratic Party -- and charges that both parties have exploited campaign contribution loopholes.

Poll after poll shows the public's urgent demands for genuine campaign finance reform. One recent survey found that 49 percent believe well-financed special interests control Washington. Another found that an overwhelming majority -- 83 percent -- want Congress to reform the election laws. They are right. Elections should be contests of candidates' ideas, ability and character -- not a test of fundraising skill.

So why haven't the laws been changed? The fact is, all members of Congress have done very well under the status quo. Incumbents have more than a 90 percent re-election rate; we know how the system works, and the advantages it grants us. I know how difficult enacting real reform will be. Last year, Senators Russ Feingold (a Democrat), Fred Thompson (a Republican) and I fought for bipartisan campaign finance reform that would limit the amount of money spent on campaigns. But the special interests in Washington used their clout to oppose the bill, and were successful at stopping it. We will try again early next year. Any real reform must:

This will do more to level the playing field in elections than other change. Past races show that the candidate who raises the most money usually wins -- and incumbents invariably raise more money than challengers. Spending limits will change that dynamic. Candidates would voluntarily agree to a spending ceiling. In return, they would be eligible for certain incentives: 30 minutes of free broadcast time; reduced postal rates for campaign mailings; and lower rates for television advertising.

The majority of campaign funds should come from people who live in a candidate's state, not from wealthy donors in other parts of the country. Candidates who agree to raise at least 60 percent of their campaign contributions at home would demonstrate that they have the clear support of the people they seek to represent.

Political action committees have done much to convince Americans that politicians are bought and sold. They should be abolished. If that is found to be unconstitutional, then we could strictly limit the amount of money they could give.

I don't have any illusions that campaign finance reform alone will cure public cynicism for politics. But I believe it will prevent that cynicism from becoming contempt, and contempt from becoming utter alienation.