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banner Friday, 14 January, 2000, 16:13 GMT
Q&A: Big bucks politics

The road to the White House is a long one but it is paved with dollar bills.

In the home of the mighty greenback one thing that anyone hoping to enter the most powerful office on the planet needs to be sure of is access to an almost bottomless pot of cash.

There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can't remember what the second one is
Mark Hanna
Mastermind of President McKinley's 1896 election
During the last presidential and congressional campaign in 1996 it is estimated that as much as $2.7bn was spent on campaigning.

Indications are that spending on the 2000 campaign will reach unprecedented levels.

Advocates of campaign finance reform argue that this race for cash, particularly from large "special interest" donors, has corrupted representative government so much that it constitutes a fundamental threat to American democracy.

How much money does a campaign cost?

Money alone won't guarantee you the best seat in the Oval Office, but it certainly helps getting a head start.

Getting your voice heard across the US takes a huge amount of money. TV advertising, election rallies, baby-kissing trips and top-flight campaign staff all gobble up cash.

By the end of 1999 some advisers were recommending that a successful campaign bid should have raised at least $20m - around $54,800 for every day of the year.

What happens if you don't have the cash?

Those who are unable to compete in the financial stakes are increasingly forced to withdraw altogether, as was the case with Republican contenders Elizabeth Dole.

I'm sorry she lost the battle of the bucks instead of the battle of ideas
John McCain on Elizabeth Dole's withdrawal
"The bottom line is money," she said announcing her withdrawal last October. Other Republicans have also withdrawn saying the Bush cash juggernaut has frozen them out of the race.

Another factor is the tight schedule of presidential primaries in this campaign forcing candidates to fund simultaneous campaigns in different states rather than shifting resources from state to state.

Some analysts have said that simply raising sufficient finances to fund this constitutes the first "invisible" primary for any prospective candidate.

As a result, says political consultant Ed Gillespie, "some very good candidates never even get to the point where voters get to say one way or another how they felt about them."

Why is finance reform an issue?

For two reasons: Firstly, because of what happened last time around in 1996. And secondly because it has been made the focal point in the campaigns of two of the main presidential candidates - Republican Senator John McCain, who has tried to push a number of finance reform bills through the Senate, and Democrat Bill Bradley.

Money is to politics as acid is to cloth - eating away at the fabric of democracy
Bill Bradley
They argue that the dominance of the dollar means politicians have become beholden to wealthy special interests rather than the national interest. Big business, they say, does not hand over tens of thousands of dollars to politicians and parties without expecting something in return.

The result is politicians become less accountable to the average American who loses faith in government and fails to get out and vote - leading, ultimately, to the death of democracy.

Observers say both the McCain and Bradley campaigns have used the issue of campaign financing to cast themselves as the man-of the people candidate willing to challenge the status quo.

So what happened in 1996?

In the last election campaign, the Clinton re-election camp and the Democratic National Committee became the focus of growing controversy over their fund-raising tactics.

Most politicians enter politics to do good - not to constantly ask people for money
Bill Bradley
With Mr Clinton's approval, donors were invited to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House or to attend coffee mornings there, effectively buying time with the president. Vice President Al Gore was accused of using his White House office to co-ordinate fund-raising activities.

There were also allegations that the Democrats had illegally taken money from foreign donors, some of whom are thought to have had links to the Chinese military.

Flushed with cash the Democrat campaign was easily able to overcome that of Republican challenger Bob Dole who had spent most of his funds winning his party's nomination.

What are the laws?

Current campaign finance laws limit the amount an individual can donate to a maximum of $1000 per candidate. However, the system only applies to federal elections and is full of loopholes allowing millions more dollars of so-called "soft money" to flow through to party committees.

Soft money makes government a soft touch. It is not about party building, its about bridge building, connecting donors with politicians in Washington DC
Ellen Miller
Executive Director Center for Public Integrity
This money is ostensibly to be used for "party building activities" such as issue advertising, but with a bit of imagination it can be used to help federal candidates.

In 1996 Republicans and Democrats both broke the spirit, if not the letter, of campaign financing laws, spending massive amounts of soft money on television commercials that were largely indistinguishable from presidential campaign ads.

With control of both the White House and Congress at stake in 2000, analysts expect upwards of half a billion dollars in soft money will have been spent by the close of campaigning.

Until we abolish soft money, Americans will never have a government that works as hard for them as it does the special interests
John McCain
Presidential candidates must also decide whether or not to accept federal matching funds - public money handed over in accordance with the amount a candidate has managed to raise from individual donors.

If they decide to accept matching funds, candidates must limit themselves to a cap of $40m on their primary campaign spending. There is no such limit if they reject matching funds because their contributions are so large they can afford to.

Most parties agree that this cannot continue and changes need to be made.

So why not change the laws?

Changing laws on political financing requires the authority of elected politicians, many of whom are unlikely to want to bite the hand that feeds them.

As such any consensus usually evaporates depending on the likely effect on their bottom lines of any proposed legislation, leaving all attempts at reform stuck in a stalemate

There are also arguments about the constitutionality of limits on political fund raising.

The protection of free speech and the right to spend huge amount making a particular view heard must, for example, be balanced against the right of all groups to have their opinions heard.

Some critics argue that this is the best case for public funding of political parties, saying that if parties are necessary to democracy, citizens should reasonably be expected to contribute to the cost of keeping democracy alive.

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