These days everybody living in Washington, D.C., appears to be awash in ill-gotten gains. From the White House on down, Democrats have been accused of accepting what amounts to virtual bribes from foreign business' interests. And things aren't much better on the opposite side of the aisle with Republicans also receiving record donations-likewise often from dubious sources.
Many people have responded with cynicism. Everybody's doin' it; politics are inherently corrupt and none of it matters anyway. Old-style liberals, meanwhile, have taken up the battle call for campaign finance reform: An idea which now gets lip service from politicos of all stripes regardless of whether they're accepting improper handouts.
But the real sinister force in American politics is not those who flout the law, some reformers say, but the law itself. As the numbers make clear, in Montana as elsewhere, legal donations from high-rolling contributors have turned democracy into the tool of the highest bidder, rather than of the citizens who vote.
In Montana's races last year, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus matched the national average with a $3.3 million war chest. Republican Rep. Rick Hill fought his way to victory with the help of $817,793 in contributions-about $300,000 more than the average spent by his colleagues in the House.
For Republican Sen. Conrad Burn's last re-election bid in 1994, he amassed more than $2.8 million, compared to the $3.8 million national average that year.
About half of the money given to Baucus, Burns and Hill during their most recent races came from political action committees, or PACs, political parties and other campaigners' committees. Two-thirds of Baucus' individual contributions were from out-of-staters. Half of Burns' individual donations were from Montanans, while Hill had the highest in-state rate at 75 percent.
Nationally, according to the Federal Elections Commission, PAC contributions rose 12 percent between 1994 and 1996. Incumbents benefited the most; challengers pulled in only 14 percent of the PAC money donated in 1996.
On the surface at least, federal elections law is pretty easy to understand. Individuals can give up to $1,000 per candidate during each election (with primaries and general races counting as separate elections).
Corporations and labor groups are among those not permitted to give directly to candidates at all, but may organize themselves into PACs. While there are restrictions on who can donate to PACs, the committees themselves have no contribution limits whatsoever.
There are different ways to look at campaign contribution data, according to Bob Schiss, staff attorney with Public Citizen's Congress Watch. "It's the age-old question: Does someone give contributions because they know a legislator is going to vote their way? If the legislator has voted their way in the past is the contribution a reward for that vote? Or is the contributor hoping to buy influence?"
No one, Schiss admits, is going to say that his or her vote is for sale. But even if contributors merely donate to those they agree with, Schiss says, the practice still puts lawmakers in a difficult position.
"How easy would it be for a legislator to change his mind," he says, "if there was a good argument on the other side, but lots of money is dependent upon him keeping up his position?"
Nonpartisan finance reform groups like Public Citizen, and the Montana Public Interest Research Group, have long advocated setting limits on campaign spending-a legally-dubious proposal since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to protect campaign donations under the First Amendment.
This year, Hill was one of a dozen freshmen House members who met in a task force to come up with a campaign reform bill.
The measure, HB 2183, would eliminate soft-money contributions from political parties, and require monthly, rather than quarterly, reporting of contributions and expenditures.
Further, Hill says, candidates are now only expected to make a "good faith effort" to get information about their donors-things like occupation and address. Under the proposed bill, contenders either have to get that information or turn down the money.
"It's pretty basic. There's no public financing of campaigns, no mandatory media slots, nothing fancy," Hill says. "We went after the things we could all agree on."
Schiss commends the bill for proposing to eliminate soft money, but adds that Public Citizen will not support it. "The bill contains provisions that go the wrong direction, and it doesn't address some other important needs for reform," he says. "It raises the amount people can give to political parties beyond what we think is justified by the elimination of soft money, and it doesn't address campaign spending."
S. 443: A bill to amend the Solid Waste Disposal Act to provide congressional authorization for restrictions on receipt of out-of-state municipal solid waste and for state control over transportation of municipal solid waste. (Referred to committee.)
S. 532: A bill to authorize funds to further the strong federal interest in the improvement of highways and transportation, and for other purposes. (Referred to committee.)
S. 634: A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to deposit in the Highway Trust Fund the receipts of the 4.3-cent increase in the fuel tax rate enacted by the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, and for other purposes. (Referred to committee.)
S. 737: A bill to authorize the extension of nondiscriminatory treatment (most-favored-nation treatment) to the products of the People's Republic of China. (Referred to committee.)
S. 815: A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide tax treatment for foreign investment through a United States regulated investment company comparable to the tax treatment for direct foreign investment and investment through a foreign mutual fund. (Referred to committee.)
S. 1014: A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to include liability to pay compensation under worker's compensation acts within the rules relating to certain personal liability assignments. (Referred to committee.)
S. Amdt. 361: To provide to private sector employees the same opportunities for time-and-a-half compensatory time off, biweekly work programs, and flexible credit hour programs as federal employees currently enjoy to help balance the demands and needs of work and family, to clarify the provisions relating to exemptions of certain professionals from the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and for other purposes. (Introduced in Senate.)
S. Amdt. 491: To prohibit cost-sharing for children in families with incomes that are less than 150 percent of the poverty line. (Senate passed.)
S. Amdt. 813: To authorize a land conveyance, Havre Air Force Station, Montana, and Havre Training Site, Montana. (Senate passed.)
S. Amdt. 906: To permit funds made available to the United States-Asia Environmental Partnership to be used for activities for the People's Republic of China. (Senate passed.)
S. Amdt. 999: To provide funds for the Butte Local Development Corporation Revolving Loan Fund. (Senate passed.)
S. Amdt. 1053: To provide for the design, construction, furnishing and equipping of an historical, cultural and paleontological interpretive center and museum to be located at Fort Peck Dam, Montana. (Senate passed.)
S. 283: A bill to establish a Commission on Structural Alternatives for the Federal Courts of Appeals. (Referred to committee.)
S. 337: A bill to promote electronic commerce by facilitating the use of strong encryption, and for other purposes. (Referred to committee.)
S. 509: A bill to provide for the return of certain program and activity funds rejected by states to the treasury to reduce the federal deficit, and for other purposes. (Referred to committee.)
S. 841: A bill to authorize construction of the Fort Peck Reservation Rural Water System in the State of Montana, and for other purposes. (Referred to committee.)
S. 1056: A bill to provide for farm-related exemptions from certain hazardous material transportation requirements. (Referred to committee.)
S. 1090: A bill to specify that states may waive requirements relating to commercial drivers' licenses under chapter 313 of title 49, United States Code, with respect to certain farm vehicles, and for other purposes. (Referred to committee.)
S. Amdt. 472: To provide that information contained in the National Directory of New Hires be deleted after six months. (Withdrawn.)
S. Amdt. 589: To allow farmers to average their income over three years. (Senate passed.)
S. Amdt. 1015: To strike section 409, which imposes, prospectively, a revolving door restriction on Mansfield fellows. (Senate passed.)
HR 976: A bill to provide for the disposition of certain funds appropriated to pay judgment in favor of the Mississippi Sioux Indians, and for other purposes. (Committee sent to House.)
HR 1379: A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to lower the maximum capital gains tax rate to 15 percent with respect to assets held for more than three years, to replace the estate and gift tax rate schedules, and for other purposes. (Referred to committee.)
HR 1764: A bill to amend title XIX of the Social Security Act to restrict imposition of Medicaid liens and Medicaid estate recovery for long-term care services in the case of certain individuals who have received benefits under long-term care insurance policies for at least three years, and to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow the carryover of reimbursement maximums for flexible spending arrangements, to allow the reimbursement of long-term care insurance premiums by FSA's, and to repeal the inclusion in income of long-term care coverage provided through FSA's. (Referred to committee.)
HR 2306: A bill to authorize construction of the Fort Peck Reservation Rural Water System in the State of Montana, and for other purposes. (Referred to committee.)
HR 2337: A bill to authorize funds to further the strong federal interest in the improvement of highways and transportation, and for other purposes. (Referred to committee.)
H. Amdt. 238: An amendment to prohibit any funds made available to the Indian Health Service from being used to restructure the funding of Indian health delivery systems to Alaskan Natives. (Introduced in House.)