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Archive: Scott Harshbarger

Common Cause President and C.E.O. Scott Harshbarger has the answers to your questions. For thirty years Common Cause has been recognized as one of America’s most effective grassroots citizens’ lobbies. Veteran CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante brings a top political expert into the Smoke-Filled Room each week to answer your questions.

Plante: Several users had questions about the states’ lawsuits against the tobacco companies. Here’s mine: have you learned anything from the fight against the tobacco industry that can be used in campaign reform?

Harshbarger: The fight against the tobacco industry taught me that it is very important that groups fighting for the same goals do not get bogged down in their differences over how those goals should be implemented. All of us who want campaign finance reform must work together and stay united. Otherwise, the opponents of reform will prevail.

Plante: Why will a female vice presidential candidate help or hurt the two major parties? William Mueller wants to know.

Harshbarger: Women are beginning to assume their rightful roles in the political life of this country. For a woman to serve as a vice-presidential candidate with either party’s nominee would seem to have mostly good effects. Many pollsters believe that women would vote in greater numbers for a ticket that includes a woman. But for women to really be able to assume their rightful political power, we must change our campaign finance system so that money does not determine whether or not you get the chance to run for president. We all saw what happened to Elizabeth Dole. She left the race for the presidency, despite her popularity and substantial qualifications, because she had lost the money race. Since the big money almost always goes to the people in power—the incumbents—our campaign finance system disadvantages any group—women and minorities—that is new to political power.

Plante: What role do you think third parties will play in the 2000 election? Does the current campaign money system discourage third parties? Is that a good or bad thing?

Harshbarger: Third parties may play a very pivotal role in the upcoming election, with Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader both running aggressive campaigns. But the current campaign money system discourages third parties because they cannot compete with the major parties in terms of the contributions they are able to raise. Remember wealthy special interests—corporations, wealthy individuals and unions—want to keep the status quo. And keeping the status quo keeps out new candidates and new parties.

Where there's smoke, is there fire? Sound off on the Campaign 2000 bulletin board!

Plante: Craig C. notes “Campaign finance reform has dropped off as a campaign issue since Sen. John McCain dropped out of the race. Seems like it was the messenger, not the message that excited people. Voters don’t seem to really care about reform issues. What’s your response?”

Harshbarger: Campaign finance reform was part and parcel of the McCain phenomenon. Although there is no question that McCain’s personality was a major part of the incredible public response, McCain himself has said again and again that people have told him how much the message of campaign finance reform has resonated with them. In fact, that is what he told me in person shortly after he left the campaign trail.

I can tell you that Senator McCain does not believe this issue has fallen off the radar screen. He believes that the American people are so fed up with the corrupt system that it’s only a matter of time before major change comes. Yesterday’s vote in the Senate to force shadowy “Stealth PACs,” groups that influence elections yet do not disclose donors, to come into the light and reveal their donors was the first victory for campaign finance reform this year. It indicates that there is a high level of bipartisan support for campaign reform measures, especially after the resonance of McCain’s campaign.

Plante: Americans hold politicians in such low regard that they’ll never, ever sanction using taxpayers dollars to fund their campaigns. Given that, Richard from Glencoe, Illinois, asks, “Isn’t the whole campaign reform push a waste of time?”

Harshbarger: Americans do care about campaign finance reform. Common sense tells the average citizen that corporations and special-interest groups do not give large amounts of money to politicians only to expect nothing in return. The average citizen does care, but his or her voice is being drowned out by the corruption of the campaign financing system. We are here to represent that vice, so that the big lie that anti-reformers try to sell to the media and the public, that nobody cares about campaign finance reform, does not win. And so that John McCain’s populist message, affirmed by his overwhelming popularity, that people want to take back control of their legislatures, does win finally.

Plante: James Stinson writes, “Campaigns are private organizations that directly exercise First Amendment rights. In addition, the US Supreme Court has ruled - more than once, more than just the Buckley decision - pretty much to this effect. To extend stringent regulations to political parties runs counter to past decisions, including Colorado GOP, San Francisco Democrat Central Committee, and Massachusetts Citizens for Life. Those decisions say that the size and source of contributions to political organizations cannot be regulated. Why is so much time spent on attacking the First Amendment rights of political institutions?

Harshbarger: Since 1907 - when Teddy Roosevelt was president - it has been against the law for corporations to donate treasury funds to political parties. Since 1947 - when Harry Truman was president - it has been illegal for labor unions to donate treasury funds to the political parties, and since 1974, it has been illegal for individuals to give more than $20,000 to a political party per year. The Supreme Court has upheld these restrictions time and time again.

The Court has recognized that corporations and unions, because of their huge aggregations of wealth, have a disproportionately large impact on the political process, and that those contributions may lead to actual corruption, or at least the appearance of it. Even the appearance of corruption would endanger the faith that American citizens have in their representative government.

No one is trying to take away the First Amendment rights of any group. As a former Attorney General and District Attorney, I believe that the fundamental constitutional rights of all Americans must be protected. And one of the most essential of these rights, the right to a truly representative, democratic government, must be protected above all. If legislators are beholden to powerful special interests, they will not be beholden to the people.

Plante: Karen wants to know “Do you support voting rights for District of Columbia residents?” If so, what if anything, is Common Cause doing to promote this issue?

Harshbarger: Common Cause is part of DC Vote - the Coalition for DC Representation in Congress. This coalition believes that a democracy gap for a half million Americans is unacceptable in the United States of America. DC Vote is working to inform the public of the fact that DC residents lack full voting representation in Congress and is building a nationwide campaign to pressure Congress to redress this clear injustice.

Can Congress do so? There are two cases that are makig their way through the judicial system. A three judge federal panel ruling in April left the door open for congressional action. It said that the Constitution neither mandates nor precludes full voting representation for DC residents.

What remedy do we support? The coalition has come together to educate people about the problem. Any solution that gives DC residents the right to vote as a community for one U.S. House Member and two U.S. Senators will accomplish the goals of DC Vote - statehood, retrocession to Maryland, and variations on the two.

Plante: Common Cause says it is a grass roots organization with no political party agenda. C.J. asks, “How do you explain all the liberal causes it espouses?”

Harshbarger: Campaign finance reform transcends partisanship. We want to keep government accountable to the citizens of the country. Any type of corruption, whether systemic or not, that begins to hinder the true process of democratic representation, is a danger to all citizens of the country, Democratic or Republican or otherwise. Without limiting the amounts of money that flow into campaigns, the citizens of this country will be endlessly battling hugely powerful special interests for the right to have their voices heard about any cause.

There are supporters and opponents of this issue in both parties and in every ideological camp. Conservatives, such as Zach Wamp (R-TN), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) all support our efforts to reform the system. The people who abuse the campaign finance laws at every level of government come from both major parties and even minor ones. And it’s also important to remember that Common Cause was the first voice in the 1996 election season to point out the massive violations of the election laws that the Clinton and Dole campaign engaged in.

Plante: “Ralph Nader seems like a natural ally for Common Cause. Why don’t you endorse him, work for him and really make a splash?” writes Jean.

Harshbarger: : Ralph Nader has been a strong advocate for the rights of consumers and was among the first leaders - along with Common Cause’s founder John Gardner - to galvanize the public to organize and to create public interest groups in the 1970’s. Nader also believes in campaign finance reform.

Plante: “I understand that Common Cause is concerned with establishing high standards of government integrity. In light of this, what do you think of the efforts to disbar President Clinton?” Edie asks.

Harshbarger: We do not have a position about the efforts to disbar President Clinton.

About Bill Plante
Bill Plante is a three-time Emmy Award winner who joined the CBS News Washington Bureau in 1976. He has been covering national elections since 1968. In 1984, he was part of a CBS News team that captured an Emmy for coverage of Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign. Plante is one of the most knowledgeable and respected political correspondents in Washington. (He'll do just about anything, including bungee jumping, to get a good story.)