Shays-Meehan takes one step forward, one back

MY VIEW l With the soft-money problem behind us, it's time to tackle the issue of hard money and the role of public airwaves

The passage of the Shays-Meehan 'soft money' ban was a step forward in the political dance to reform democracy.

This legislation stops the unlimited contributions to political parties called soft money, enabling parties to get back to their original purpose Ñ building membership, not laundering special-interest contributions.

The Shays-Meehan legislation, however, includes a step backward for democracy reform: The limit on contributions given directly to candidates by individuals Ñ or 'hard money' contributions Ñ has doubled to $2,000. Three-quarters of all the dollars given to federal elections in 2000 were hard-money contributions, unaffected by the soft-money ban.

Contributions from Enron and its former auditor, Arthur Andersen, demonstrate the impact of hard money. Sixty-two percent of political spending from executives and others working for these companies arrived as hard-money contributions during the last election. This type of spending can now double under the new hard-money limits. The increase in hard money is expected to replace the dollars taken out of the political system through the soft-money ban.

The next step, therefore, is to address hard money. Instead of dialing for hard-money dollars, some candidates in Arizona, Maine and Vermont have had success with a new fund-raising option. These states have initiated 'clean money' campaign finance systems. Candidates who meet rigorous qualifications may voluntarily join the system. In return for not taking any private contributions, the candidates receive a limited amount of public funding.

Federal clean-money legislation has been introduced in the Senate and House. In fact, the Shays-Meehan bill calls for a study of successful state clean-money programs. The Oregon federal delegation should carefully review how clean-money reform has improved democracy in those states and join Reps. Peter DeFazio and Earl Blu-menauer as co-sponsors of this important democracy reform.

Reclaiming our publicly owned airwaves and requiring free airtime for political candidates would be another step to advance democracy reform. Television and radio stations receive exclusive licenses at no cost with the requirement that they serve the public interest. But they spend little time covering political campaigns, while, in 2000, political advertising on TV made $1 billion. Free airtime for political candidates is typical in most of the world's democracies.

A similar policy in the United States would help to free our election system from the corrupting influence of big money needed to buy media time and would move us toward a graceful end to the democracy reform dance.

Judy Davis works as a volunteer with the Portland-based Money in Politics Research Action Project, which works to increase accountability in politics. She lives in Lake Oswego.