Give 'em a choice: Lobby or donate

"These presidential ninnies should stick to throwing out baseballs and leave the important matters to serious people."

Gore Vidal

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column warning you folks to beware of politicians and political parties who are pushing the idea of campaign finance reform. I pointed out that restricting or prohibiting political action committees from being able to distribute our "soft" money to the candidates of our choice would be diluting our basic right of free speech.

However, after thoughtful reconsideration it occurred to me that there is a way to rid ourselves of wheeler-dealer special interest campaign donations, which the Democrats claim is their prime target, and at the same time, change the nature of lobbyist activities at all levels of government, federal and state.

And this can be done without diluting our constitutional right of free speech by imposing restrictions on contributions we citizens make to candidates either directly, or through political action committees.

Now, taking Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and John McCain at their own words, all three claim to be primarily interested in shutting off special-interest campaign money. But I don't trust them. The reason I don't have faith in their born-again attitudes concerning special interest money is because all three of them are rolling in largess from special interests, and if they were sincere about shutting down the money pipeline, they would have put forth the solution that I'm herewith proposing.

Special interests are the core of all political systems. And you might be shocked at who qualifies as influence-peddling, money-giving special interests. Some of them are considered almost sacred. These special interests collectively employ thousands of registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C. alone, whose functions are to influence votes.

And every one of these lobbyists arranges for campaign donations to be made to "key" lawmakers, "key" denoting the ones involved with legislation of interest to the lobbyist's clients.

Personally, I'd like to see an end to all special-interest campaign donations and "in kind" contributions as well. In-kind contributions are where organizations recruit employee or member volunteers to perform free services for candidates which otherwise would cost money. For example, unions and other organizations traditionally supply member volunteers to go door-to-door, handing out campaign literature for candidates who don't have time to do it themselves. These and other "in-kind" services aren't counted as campaign contributions.

Real campaign finance reform must prohibit any corporation, company, union, trade association, business association, professional association, academic association or any other such group, who uses the services of a lobbyist, from making any political campaign contributions, either money or "in-kind," to individual candidates or political action committees!

Lobbyists are defined as employees of companies, unions, or associations who engage in lobbying, as well as professional lobbyists. In other words, companies, unions, and associations can use all the lobbyists they want but then they forfeit their right to make campaign contributions to anybody.

Conversely, companies, unions, and associations could contribute all the money and "in-kind" services they want to political candidates, incumbents and PAC's provided they forfeit all lobbying activities. Again, you take your choice. You can have one shot at influencing elected officials and candidates, either campaign donations or lobbyists, but you can't have both.

And lobbying activities include telephone calls to officials and candidates as well. Having been a legislator, I'm confident that under this proposed reform the vast majority of companies, unions and associations would opt for lobbying in preference to making campaign donations.

Most companies and associations really don't like giving money to candidates. It's often a necessary evil and one of self-defense. And the top lobbyists I've known don't like arranging and disbursing campaign contributions either. Often they're forced to play both ends from the middle and contribute to those they don't trust as well as those they do. Little doubt about it, though, campaign contributions through lobbyists are considered to be advance political payoffs or at the very least, insurance money.

Would this campaign reform proposal be legal? Who knows? But it's probably as legal as any other reform proposal being floated around. Frankly, from a constitutional standpoint, I don't think denying anyone or any group the right to give money to candidates is legal. But who pays attention to our constitution these days? Maybe the judges but not the politicians.

Anyway, whatever reforms, if any, are adopted, we individual citizens must at all costs protect our free speech rights to contribute as much money as we want to the candidates of our choice, either as individuals or through political action committees. The Democrats want to eliminate PACs because for the past few years, PACs have been raising more money for Republicans.

But the deck isn't stacked in favor of Republicans. The PAC system is as fair for one side as it is the other. Remember, our votes and our money are the only defenses we citizens have.

Bob Thomas is a Carson City businessman, local curmudgeon and former member of the Carson City School Board and Nevada State Assembly.


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