Reading Time: 6 minutes

Now that George W. Bush has been duly sworn in as the 43rd president of the United States, he immediately faces an unavoidable political situation that has previously proved intractable. His chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination last year, Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., is forcing a roll call vote on the issue of campaign finance reform, as the Senates first order of business.

Although Bush obviously doesn’t share McCain’s fervor about the need for political reform, how Bush handles this critical moment will set the tone for his presidency. His hold on power could not be more tenuous. He is the first president in 124 years to occupy the White House without winning the popular vote; the other three chief executives to attempt to govern in that predicament were not re-elected. Republicans have a precarious majority in the House, and his vice president, Richard Cheney, presides over the historic circumstance of a divided Senate with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats.

Will Bush display statesmanlike leadership emblematic of a “uniter not a divider” and boldly break through entrenched Washington inertia and cynical assumptions, achieving a substantive solution? Or will he merely add to the partisan din and ignore or sidestep the subject, the way presidents have for the last 20 years?

There is no more important or pressing matter facing our democracy than cleaning up politics and restoring trust in government. How can a new president and Congress, for example, attempt to enact meaningful prescription drug legislation when the powerful pharmaceutical industry is prescribing tens of millions of dollars in campaign donations, all-expense-paid trips and hundreds of at-your-service lobbyists for Capitol Hill lawmakers? How can Republicans and Democrats fairly enact a tax cut when most large political contributions come from corporations and wealthy individuals whose tax-avoidance lobbyists have been bending the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committee’s ears for years? And only the most determined ostrich cannot notice that the pariah tobacco industry whose cigarettes kill 400,000 Americans each year still gets its way in Washington.

Does anyone really believe that the $30 million in tobacco political contributions in 10 years to members of Congress and the two major parties is unrelated to the continuing U.S. government programs to help grow tobacco, insure it, export it, and protect it against foreign imports?

Money talks; promises walk

From the cost of groceries to how much we pay each month for cable TV to literally hundreds of health, safety and financial issues that affect our daily lives, decisions by our elected officials too often appear to have been unduly influenced by narrow vested interests.

Fact is, money talks and campaign promises walk in the mercenary culture of Washington today. And it is the lobbyists who grease the skids and put their well-heeled clients and their checkbooks in touch with lawmakers and their never-ending re-election campaigns; in 1968 there were 62 registered lobbyists, and now there are 20,000 and climbing. We have just endured the most expensive election in U.S. history, in which federal campaign expenditures by candidates and parties rose nearly 50 percent in just the four years between 1996 and 2000!

They didn’t raise almost $3 billion from backyard barbecues and neighborhood bake sales, but from corporations, labor unions and individuals who want something from government. The current sleazy, pay-to-play political process makes it almost impossible for a new president to enact anything significant.

Whatever Bush hopes to accomplish legislatively, he faces a skeptical nation, and not just because of the controversial manner in which he obtained power. While our politicians are scurrying to exclusive fund-raising events in their frenetic money chase to pay for campaign ads, the American people are deeply distrustful of them and the life-affecting public policy decisions they make. Indeed, roughly 100 million Americans voted with their feet in the November election, not going to the polls at all, continuing the decades-long national decline in political participation. Three out of four Americans in the mid-1960s believed that you could “trust the government in Washington to do what is right all or most of the time.” Today, three in four Americans don’t trust the government to do what is right most of the time.

Exacerbating this palpable sense of alienation between government and the governed is the fact that we hardly ever meet or see our elected representatives in person, work in political campaigns or donate to our favorite candidates. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 96 percent of the American people don’t contribute a dime to any federal candidate or to the two major political parties, and a check of $1,000 comes from one-tenth of 1 percent of the public. Our politicians thus are selected and brought to us by the wealthiest, most powerful financial interests in the nation, which helps to explain why millions of Americans regard our elected public officials, our employees, as representing “them” more than “us.”

Record for $1,000 checks

No political candidate in U.S. history has ever received more $1,000 checks in a single election than George W. Bush, who shattered all previous fund-raising records by collecting $103.6 million. He stunned the political world in early 1999 by raising $37 million in four months, or $310,748 a day: more than the 10 other major Republican contenders combined, and more than either Bill Clinton or Bob Dole raised for his campaign in the entire 1995-96 cycle. Bush also was the first leading presidential candidate of either party to forsake federal matching funds and the state spending limits established after the Watergate scandal.

Perhaps it is not amazing, then, that campaign finance reform has never grabbed Mr. Bush as a compelling issue. After his upset loss to McCain in the New Hampshire primary last year, Bush abruptly changed his campaign slogan to the “reformer with results,” even though as governor of Texas he had never made a single political reform speech or proposal. He began advocating prompt disclosure of campaign contributions on the Internet and banning corporate and union “soft money” those large, unregulated contributions to the political parties but not large checks from individuals, a proposal that struck veteran reformers as specious and insincere. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Bush said, “Tonight in this hall, we resolve to be the party of not of repose but of reform.” But he made no specific reference to campaign finance reform, and in subsequent months his aides have given no indications at all that the subject has gained in importance to the former Texas governor.

McCain action provocative

All of which makes McCain’s determination to force an up-or-down vote in the U.S. Senate, in the crucial, earliest days of the new Bush administration, all the more provocative. Bush’s party has obstructed campaign finance reform initiatives in Congress for the past decade. Indeed, the last president to veto major campaign finance legislation passed by both houses of Congress was a one-term Republican named George Herbert Walker Bush.

For years, the GOP leadership has specifically opposed reform legislation by McCain and Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin that would most notably ban soft money from corporations, labor unions and individuals. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich kept any serious campaign reform legislation off the House floor throughout 1995, 1996 and 1997, but in 1998 a majority of House members forced a public roll-call vote on the measure, and it passed in both 1998 and 1999. However, Majority Leader Trent Lott and Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell managed to kill it in the Senate when McCain and his allies could not muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a threatened filibuster.

Ironically, the last time a president boldly signed a new law to clean up political campaigns was back in 1974, when a new, unelected Republican president, Gerald Ford, signed historic campaign finance reforms into law, declaring, “The times demand this legislation.” Just weeks earlier, Richard Nixon had resigned after two tortuous years of the Watergate scandal.

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 imposed limits of $1,000 on individual campaign contributions, and public disclosure requirements were strengthened through the creation of an independent Federal Election Commission. But the authority of this new regulatory system was undermined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 in a landmark case, Buckley v. Valeo. While the court recognized the importance of contribution limits “to limit the actuality and appearance of corruption resulting from large individual financial contributions,” it also framed campaign spending as a First Amendment, free-speech issue. In other words, millionaires can spend as much of their own money as they want on their own campaigns. The court also held that while campaign ads expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office could be regulated, advertisements about issues could not be restricted under the Constitution.

The post-Watergate system regulating politicians and their elections has gradually come unraveled since that court ruling and considerable mischief by the best election lawyers and accountants Republican and Democratic money can buy.

In the 1996 election, FEC auditors and FBI agents found that the Clinton and Dole campaigns had misspent tens of millions of dollars in party funds, but no one was fined or prosecuted. In the 2000 election, liberal and conservative “outside” groups spent more than $400 million on “issue ads” to influence electoral races, up from $150 million in 1996. And soft money to the two major parties, nearly impossible to track, exploded from $262 million in 1996 to 488 million in the 1999-2000 cycle.

An overwhelming majority of Americans thinks politics ought to be cleaned up, but for two decades all major attempts to do so in Washington have failed. To enormously respected former Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, the threat to our democracy is grave, and campaign finance abuses are “far worse today” than during Watergate. “The abuses are worse partly because there’s much more money and . . . there’s much more pressure on those who receive the money to yield to the wishes of those who give it.”

And so the question is, how will George W. Bush respond to the effrontery of John McCain, forcing such an unwanted, difficult decision on the untested new president so early in his administration? Will Bush follow in his fathers footsteps, toe the party line and veto major campaign finance reform legislation? Or will he emulate the bipartisan example set by the unelected Republican Gerald Ford, who distinguished himself on this subject in the wake of Watergate?

Your support is crucial!

Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.

Charles Lewis founded the Center for Public Integrity in 1989 and served as its executive director until...