State Bishops ‘Hit Mark’ in Call for Campaign Reform

by Gail Shea, Executive Director, 1996-2000

July 15, 1999

Anyone who believes that religion and politics can never mix needs to read the Catholic bishops’ draft statement on campaign reform.

This eloquent commentary offers an insightful diagnosis of the problems that plague our elections as well as sensible solutions. The best part is that the bishops describe needed reforms in very human terms, always focusing on how the failings of the current system affect real people. In making the case for campaign reform, the bishops have performed a considerable service to the cause by adding a human dimension and a moral perspective to a debate that too often is coldly technical and crassly political.

The bishops also took the somewhat unusual step of inviting public comment before approving a final version of their statement.

Here’s the reaction of someone who’s spent the better part of a lifetime working on this issue:

While the bishops go to great lengths to remind readers that they "lack expertise in the art of campaigning for office," they in fact show an impressive grasp of what’s going on in campaigns these days. They accurately describe the vicious circle that starts with special interest donations, which pay for harshly negative campaign advertisements, which repulse voters, which in turn strengthens the role of the special interests. The bishops correctly suggest "the cumulative impact of all this is to undermine citizen participation and trust upon which our democracy depends for its survival."

Their overall assessment that there is a "growing public concern that the ability of.citizens to participate in the political process, the trust of all citizens in their government and the health of our democracy are all jeopardized by the current system" is right on target. And I couldn’t agree more with the bishops’ conclusion that "the time has come for a serious revision of the system by which campaigns are conducted."

Their two specific suggestions for reform - public financing of campaigns and limits on spending - hit the mark. These are the essential ingredients of reform and they address the two biggest problems with the current system: 1) there is too much money in politics; and 2) there is too much special interest influence.

The bishops understand what so many others have failed to grasp – that campaign finance reform is not possible without public financing. Without the use of tax dollars for public grants to candidates, there is no legal way to enforce spending limits. Without spending limits, there is no way to reduce the growing reliance on negative TV ads and no way to reduce special interest influence over elected officials.

And, just as importantly, they make the case that campaign spending can be limited without inhibiting free speech. While many wrongly assume that limiting campaign spending is at odds with the First Amendment, the bishops understand that political speech has become anything but free in these days of runaway campaign spending. They persuasively argue that it is important to make sure that the paid political messages of some "do not overwhelm or supplant the message of other citizens, especially that of the candidates themselves.."

In making this point, the bishops zero in on a fast-growing blight on our democratic process – the independent spending campaigns conducted by special interest groups. Candidates’ messages to voters are being drown out by expensive ad campaigns paid for by powerful special interests. There is no trend as hazardous to the health of our democracy as the emergence of these special interest campaigns and the phony "issue ads" that have become one of their trademarks.

Because of the moral force of the bishops’ argument, efforts to breathe new life into our democracy have received a tremendous boost. For that all citizens of this state should be thankful.