Big money largely designates who runs, who wins, what issues are raised, how they are framed, and finally, how legislation is drafted. That is the charge former Hawaiian Congressman Cecil Heftel makes in this brief but well-documented assault on the way American political campaignsare now funded.
A Democrat who grew up admiring Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Heftel served from 1976 to 1986 in the House of Representatives, where he served on the Ways and Means Committee. Before going into politics, he earned a fortune by buying radio stations and building their audiences. His wealth enabled him to finance his own successful campaigns. His victories, however, served to reinforce his conviction that money rather than merit rules in politics. In backing his conclusions, Heftel draws on his experiences as a Washington insider and on relevant data compiled by other critics. His scorn for the way things are done is refreshingly even-handed and non-partisan.
To drive home the point that campaign funding by special interests is both rampant and socially destructive, Heftel devotes a chapter each to explaining how strings-attached contributions affect the budget deficit, the tax structure, defense spending, health insurance policies, the environment, and regulation of the auto industry.
Once he has outlined the problem, Heftel then proposes to alleviate it with a Clean Money Campaign Reform movement. It involves the voluntary public financing through an annual donation of less than $10 per citizen of any aspiring candidate who can demonstrate that he or she has a specified number of supporters. A candidate participating in this approach would further have to agree not to accept any special interest money. Although Heftel concedes that he is fighting an uphill battle, he argues that a few passionate reformers can eventually galvanize the public and then go on to win the war. Even when they are less than spelled out and fully argued, Heftel's ideas are worth pondering. Edward Morris is a Nashville journalist.