Reforming Reform

To the Editors:

In "Reforming Reform" [TAP, December 18, 2000], Robert Dreyfuss says much that desperately needed to be said about the sad state of campaign finance reform, its scaled-back ambitions, and the limited value of a ban on soft money in a world of unfettered issue advocacy.

But read at another level, the article itself exemplifies a reason that campaign finance reformers have not had a victory in a quarter-century: their famously sectarian self-destructiveness. In the space of a few paragraphs, Dreyfuss denounces the only ally that reform has ever found in the party that controls the Senate, John McCain; the only major-party candidate for president ever to call for full public financing of campaigns, Vice President Al Gore; the only ally that reform has ever found in the mainstream business community, the Committee for Economic Development (CED); and three reform organizations, including the only two that actually have members, for entering a "Faustian bargain" merely by doing business with the CED!

Dreyfuss calls for a reform movement that possesses "money [and] political muscle," while rejecting the support of actual politicians in either party, anyone connected to corporations or moneyed interests, and even most activists and membership groups who have devoted years to the cause. ("Reform is too important to be left to the reformers," he says, in a particularly meaningless sentence.)

Dreyfuss thinks that organized labor should fill in for the banished reformers and its allies, but he laments that the AFL-CIO "has directed the bulk of its resources to fighting its day-to-day battles" rather than shifting to campaign finance reform. (Are labor's day-to-day battles unimportant?)

Dreyfuss's path leads to only one place--another quarter-century of self-righteous marginalization. Dreyfuss creates a deliberate trap: We have to "fix Congress" before attempting reform, but if the system is so dominated by money, how is electoral success possible?

There has to be a way out of this trap. If there is, it begins by being clear and realistic about the objectives of reform. "Getting money out of politics" is just not a meaningful goal in a capitalist country with a First Amendment. But perhaps we can make it easier for candidates without wealthy backers to compete for office, through voluntary full public financing as in Maine, or New York City's new fourfold public matching system for small contributions. Perhaps we can get the particularly corrupting power of million-dollar direct corporate contributions back out of campaigns, as we did after Watergate. Perhaps we can strengthen disclosure so elected officials will know they are accountable when they put private interests above the public's.

These goals may be modest compared to "a massive power shift based on class," but they are also a long way away. Achieving them will require finding allies, treating them with respect, and perhaps even making compromises--in short, politics.

Mark Schmitt

Director, Program on Governance and Public Policy

The Open Society Institute

New York, NY

Housing: The Hidden Issue

To the Editors:

Thank you for Kim Phillips-Fein's article "Housing: The Hidden Issue" [December 4, 2000]. This issue is particularly relevant in the Boston area, where six years ago the real estate industry joined with landlords to get rid of all rent control regulations. For many years, the city of Boston had a moderate form of rent control that stabilized housing costs and protected tenants from harsh extremes of the marketplace. Since the removal of rent control protections, rents have skyrocketed and many long-term tenants have been forced out of their homes and communities. Average rents increased from $700 to $1,500 a month (and they are still rising). If there is any question about the importance of rent regulations in certain local housing markets, one need only look at the city of Boston, where the removal of such regulations has created an unmitigated housing disaster.

Terry Crystal

Cambridge, MA

War, Peace, and the Election

To the Editors:

I was pleased that an American Prospect editor at last addressed U.S. foreign policy as a vital matter in the 2000 election and beyond [Paul Starr, "War, Peace, and the Election," November 20, 2000]. Mr. Starr wisely noted the acuteness of peacekeeping in determining the nature of U.S. world leadership. Here, Bush and Gore did differ in their campaign rhetoric.

Still, by focusing on whether or not the United States should get involved in particular peacekeeping or nation-building efforts, such as in Rwanda or Kosovo, Bush and Gore ignored a broader yet ultimately more pressing debate. This larger question concerns whether our nation should adopt a cooperative, multilateral approach to foreign policy or define our "national interests" in the narrowest terms possible.

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration will leave a mixed legacy in this regard. For example, President Clinton has failed to sign the International Criminal Court Treaty, the culmination of an international human rights consensus, which his administration played no small role in fostering. One hopes the new Republican administration will uphold international rule of law and full payment of United Nations dues--rather than arbitrary intervention or callous isolation--as a model foreign policy.

Steven P. Miller

Pittsburgh, PA

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