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The Special Interests Still Rule : In all the talk of an election revolution, there's no mention of campaign reform.

November 22, 1994|TOM HAYDEN | State Sen. Tom Hayden is a Democrat representing parts of West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

The central political abuse that will not be changed by the new Republican Establishment is the ongoing torrent of special-interest money for consultants, commercials and candidates that corrupts the democratic process.

Notably missing from Speaker-elect Newt Gingrich's Republican "contract" is any reform of campaign spending or the sordid skulduggery of the estimated 80,000 lobbyists encamped in Washington.

The new Republican leadership is gearing to stand tall against welfare mothers but can't be found when it comes to confronting contributors seeking handouts. Gingrich declared to political-action-committee representatives in mid-October, "What we've said to all the PACs and, frankly, to their donors is that this is the year." He also warned that "for anybody who's not on board now, it's going to be the two coldest years in Washington."

But the problem now is bipartisan. In all the post-election chatter among Democrats, Republicans and Washington pundits, there has been little reference to reforming a system that obviously disgusts most voters.

Nearly $100 million was spent in the California gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races alone, most of that on clashing commercials aimed at a small percentage of undecided voters. If democracy means a majority vote based on independent information, democracy is being killed by advertising.

Meaningful change is buried as well. Burning issues like the decline of our cities and schools and the inflationary growth of prisons go unaddressed while small but well-heeled farming and mining interests hammer politicians into protecting their century-old, virtually free access to public lands.

Even successful populist efforts of the past, such as Proposition 103, which required an elected insurance commissioner, have been turned upside down by stealth money. The insurance companies elected a pro-industry regulator, Chuck Quackenbush, and were the biggest contributors to Pete Wilson.

Most of the key players in the power game benefit from the current fund-raising rules. The Republicans are not going to surrender the money arsenal that funded their sweep. The Democrats plan to be "comeback kids" in 1996 with funds from interest groups of their own. The consult ant industry and the television networks make millions in fees. Only the public withdraws, retching.

If neither party proves capable of breaking its addiction to this treadmill, our situation requires an independent grass-roots movement, a legal challenge to the status quo, a statewide initiative in 1996 and perhaps even a third party before the decade is over.

To prevent another 1994 electoral debacle, here are the kinds of reform we need:

* An educational campaign to reverse the 1975 Supreme Court ruling that the unlimited spending of money in politics is a First Amendment right. It was supported by the ACLU, mistakenly believing that minority views could only be protected by sympathetic millionaires.

It is remarkable that so many politicians attack the courts for being soft on crime and abortion while none have challenged the courts' coddling of wealthy contributors and candidates.

* Applying anti-trust doctrine to electoral competition, there must be expenditure limits enacted, with public matching funds for candidates who agree to debates and other fair campaign practices. Contribution limits alone are not enough. Any interest group can arrange for thousands of small contributions in place of one big check.

* Regulate or eliminate 30- or 60-second commercials. Paid advertising is a marketing device, not democratic dialogue. It cannot be answered except by those with money. An alternative could be re-establishment of the "fairness doctrine."

* Liberate campaigns from Madison Avenue and center them in a multimedia "town square" through interactive video and the free media.

* There is no democratic reason to close voter registration 30 days before an election. Nor should elections be limited to 12 hours on a working day when they could be administered on a weekend.

The new Gingrichites, like the incumbents before them, can celebrate the winning of office but it is unlikely that they can govern fairly or efficiently. Their own arrogance leads to policies that are too self-serving to solve the problems of society. The crisis, then, will deepen until their addictive paradigm is shattered.

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