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Public Papers - 1989

Remarks to Congressional and Administrative Interns Announcing Campaign Finance Reform Proposals


I can understand that warmth of the welcome. Look at it this way, the longer you are here, the longer you don't have to be there in the office working. [Laughter] I expect I speak for all of you when I turn to thank the marines for that warm welcome. They are magnificent -- always have been and always will be. Apologies to Mr. Billington, the head of the Library of Congress. I have to admit, I feel a little awkward giving a speech at this particular place after all those years of being told not to speak out loud in the library. [Laughter]

But the Library of Congress has indeed been called the diary of the American people. In truth, it's a diary of the human race. And in the million stories of achievement it has to tell, one truth is revealed above all others: that for all its blemishes, government of the people is the greatest achievement of all. And as I look around me, I see what I'm told are the best and the brightest of the new generation, and for you, this summer of independence is just a sweet taste of adulthood, of what lies ahead. And trust me, freedom is not as far off as it seems.

Whatever you do in Washington, page or intern, you are apprentices in what I steadfastly feel is a noble profession: public service. And we exalt public service because we do not exalt the primacy of our government. We keep government close to the people it's meant to serve.

And there's another fundamental concept in our way of governing: reform. Ours is not a perfect government; it's a government constantly perfected. A steadily improving government is the result of our open political system. And in this system, elections are more than the deadlines of democracy; they are the marketplace of ideas. They're not just contests between individuals; they are contests between philosophies. And when this sharp edge of competition is dulled, democracy is the loser.

In April, I proposed comprehensive ethics legislation for all branches of government, and today I call on the United States Congress to pass that package. But I also want to address other problems: how to free our electoral system from the grip of special interests, how to spur the free competition of ideas.

You've often heard me speak of the necessity of bipartisanship. And I do strongly believe that we must work together when dealing with the most difficult challenges facing our country, not as partisans but as Americans. But we will not, and should not, cease to be Republicans and Democrats. True, the Founding Fathers envisioned no role for parties, and yet 200 years of political experiences have shown their value. Political parties clarify and sharpen the debate. And they shape coalitions of like-minded people, giving millions of Americans an effective way to support their beliefs and advance their candidates.

Parties are the indispensable organizers of democracy. And yet times have changed, and today's special interest political action committees [PAC's] and their 0 million war chests overshadow the great parties of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. And as the strength of our parties erodes, so does the strength of our political system. Distinctions between candidates get all mixed up; they become muddled. And congressional debate lacks coherence and lacks discipline. By necessity, Members of Congress engage in time-consuming and often degrading appeals for money outside the party structure. As vigorous competition between candidates and between ideas wanes, the clear winner in the race for PAC dollars is incumbency.

Some believe public or taxpayer financing is the best answer. I do not. If we exclude individuals, you see, if we exclude them from the process, we exclude the public. And this is the ironic result of taxpayer financing: It would force taxpayers to support extremist candidates they abhor. It would be a siphon from the U.S. Treasury, already in deficit, to campaign coffers. Taxpayer financing would do nothing to strengthen the parties. If anything, it would strengthen the status quo, and what the voters really need is more choice.

Spending limits are not the answer either. If we're to encourage individuals to participate in the electoral process, if we are to encourage candidates to bring their message to as many voters as possible, we should not have absolute limits on spending. The answer is reform. We need reforms that curtail the role of special interests, enhance the role of the individual, and strengthen the parties.

So, today I propose just that: a sweeping system of reform for our system. More than 90 percent of all PAC contributions come from PAC's sponsored by corporations, unions, and trade associations. So, the cornerstone of this reform -- of our reform -- is the elimination of those political action committees. I propose to curtail the proliferation of leadership PAC's by limiting all candidates for Federal office to one fundraising committee. And by also barring transfers between fundraising committees, we will further reduce the influence of special interest money in the electoral process.

I propose to end a practice that's known as bundling, where business and unions encourage or coerce contributions from employees or members and then give these contributions as one single donation. And as these reforms curtail special interest money, we must encourage the role of the parties -- encourage it. And I propose to more than double the amount of monies parties may donate to congressional campaigns. Increasing party donations to Federal candidates will allow legislators to spend more time legislating and less time raising money. And it will give challengers the means to compete with incumbents. And it will allow all candidates to avoid having to raise money from special interests.

And still, some PAC's must remain because they are protected under our Constitution by the first amendment. And these independent PAC's account for about 10 percent of all contributions, but even these I would limit by halving their allowable contributions to Federal candidates from ,000 to ,500 -- reduce it from ,000 to ,500. And new laws must keep such PAC's unaffiliated and independent, so a business or labor group could not use them as a back-door means of influencing the process.

I also propose to strengthen the Supreme Court's Beck decision, which held that union members can't be forced to have their dues go to political causes or organizations they do not support. No American -- no American, not one -- should be compelled to give money to a candidate against his or her will.

We must do more to truly clean up the system. The basic strength of today's system is disclosure: being honest with the American people. Yet most money spent in American elections is not disclosed. This little-known area of campaign finance laws called soft money concerns dollars spent on voter turnout and registration efforts. And so, I call on the United States Congress today to join me in mandating full disclosure of all soft money contributions by the political parties, as well as corporations, unions, and trade associations.

Other laws govern, now, independent expenditure groups -- you know, which can spend any amount of money to elect or defeat a candidate so long as their activities are not coordinated with those of a particular candidate. Now look, some of these groups perform a public service, but too often they mask the motives of hidden contributors acting as mercenary character assassins. Often they deceive the public into thinking that they are a candidate's campaign. And yet, all independent expenditure groups, the good and the bad alike, are protected by the Constitution. In order to provide more information to the public, I propose that such groups be required to more clearly identify the person or organization behind them. Disclosure -- full disclosure -- that's the answer here.

The third and final area of reform directly concerns the powers of incumbency. Jefferson envisioned a Congress of citizen politicians who suspended their careers in law, in medicine, in agriculture to serve the Nation. Now, how far we've come from that simple vision: Today incumbents stay in office for decades, amassing huge war chests to scare off strong challenges in election after election. This is not democracy in the spirit of Madison and Jefferson. This is not the spirit of democracy at all. And so, I propose to end the rollover of campaign war chests, requiring any excess campaign funds to be donated to the parties, to a fund to retire the national debt, or to be given back to the contributors. And this would apply to all unspent campaign funds, whether it's a race for Congress or a race for the Presidency.

Under our current law, 190 House Members in office in 1980 can also use that leftover campaign money as a personal retirement fund, pocketing hundreds of thousands -- even millions of dollars when they leave office. Senators are allowed to convert these funds for official use. This practice must end. And this same principle should apply to Presidential candidates as well.

Another advantage of incumbency arises from the way in which Members of Congress use the public frank to pay for mass mailings that amount to political advertising. The cost to the taxpayers, literally, runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. And the cost to our democracy is also very, very steep. I propose to prohibit the use of the frank for unsolicited mass mailings.

And yet another area in need of reform is redistricting: the way in which parties in power ignore community boundaries and draw district lines favorable to their candidates. No single factor is more basic to restoring competitive elections than ensuring fair redistricting. I propose a new criteria for redistricting without favor to party. To respect established community boundaries, we must draw district lines that respect the needs of the people, not tailor them to the political needs of either party.

And finally, in the next few days I will also send up legislation to ban honoraria and to address certain aspects of compensation for Federal officials. This package will include a 25-percent pay increase for judges, which I've previously recommended, and an increase for a limited number of specialized professionals, such as scientists and surgeons, where the executive branch is not competitive. And I'll also work with the Congress on the development of details for increasing the pay of those in the Congress, as well as other senior employees of the executive branch.

This year, as Congress observes its 200th anniversary, 11,000 Americans have served in the House and Senate in the history of our Republic. And I'm proud to have been one of them. And most have served in the great tradition -- Russell and Rayburn, Dirksen and Mansfield, Dole and Mitchell, Foley and Michel. And someday, who knows, you may elect, after your experience here this summer, to follow this path, the path to greatness and achievement through public service. And if you do, I hope the laws that govern our campaigns and our Congress, as well as our executive branch, are as just and honest as the majority of those who serve the public. You know, this vast and honest majority in Congress live the words of George Washington, who said, ``The noblest title in the world isn't President, Senator, or Congressman but honest man.'' Whatever you do in life, you can have no higher title than that.

Thank you all for listening. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

Note: The President spoke at 2:06 p.m. in the auditorium at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. In his opening remarks, he referred to the Marine Band.

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