Albert Gore, Jr. photo

Remarks at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

March 27, 2000

I'm honored to be here at Marquette University. And I'm honored to be joined by someone who lives up to the high progressive ideals of Wisconsin — and who leads this nation in the fundamental cause of campaign reform -- Senator Russ Feingold.

I want to begin by sharing the words of another great advocate of political reform, a man who said, four decades ago:

"I am one who believes in the principle of one man, one vote?I believe in the ?equality of man, the equality of opportunity, rights, and privileges? and one of these rights is the right to have an equal influence on the selection of public officials."

That man was my father, Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee, speaking on the floor of the United States Senate in a day and decade when few even worried about the influence of money in politics — and even fewer dared to stand up for change. He made a career of standing up to powerful interests — from waging the earliest battles for Medicare, to casting some of the rare Southern votes in the Senate for gun control.

During and after the 1956 Presidential election, my father led the most sweeping investigation of campaign contributions and spending that had been conducted up to that time. Here is what he found:

--Limitless, unregulated contributions were making a mockery of our campaign finance laws.

--Special-interest donations were being used to manipulate elections and thwart the public will.

--And in my father's own words, "the lack of proper controls over the raising and spending of money in political campaigns poses the greatest danger to the democratic elective process."

He was right then — and for all the laws passed since then, his words, sadly, continue to ring true today.

In 1970, my father lost his Senate seat -- in part because of the special-interest money that was funneled into his opponent's campaign by the Nixon dirty tricks operation.

I learned a powerful lesson about American politics from my father — a lesson I tried to sum up in one of my first contributions to the public debate as a freshman Congressman in 1978, when I argued that campaign finance reform "is one of the most important steps we can take to return government to the people." In that first term in Congress, I began an effort to persuade my colleagues and my constituents that as long as "special-interest money control s campaign funding, the public interest will suffer ."

That's why I called for public financing of Congressional elections that same year, and throughout my service in Congress. It's why I pushed for measures to reduce campaign costs, limit PAC contributions, and fully disclose special-interest spending. It's why I sponsored or co-sponsored more than a dozen campaign finance reform bills since that first term in Congress.

I may not have been as effective in advancing this cause as your Russ Feingold has been. But I believe in it very deeply. My own commitment to this issue has made me appreciate even more the skill with which Russ Feingold and others have made this a part of our national debate.

And it has made me appreciate the real heroes in this fight — hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans, all across this country, who are determined to reclaim their democracy from the special interests. This movement has been carried forward by working men and women, housewives, ministers and factory hands -- ordinary people who insisted on making real the promise of our democracy — and insisted on making those at the highest levels of power respect the premise that in a democracy, all people are politically and morally equal.

No one better embodies the heart of this grassroots movement than Doris Haddock, better known as "Granny D," a 90-year-old grandmother from New Hampshire who spent 14 months walking from California to Washington, D.C. to bring attention to this cause. And by the way, she was joined for part of that walk by my opponent, Bill Bradley — who along with John McCain, helped to put this issue at the forefront of this campaign.

It is on behalf of these ordinary heroes that I am here today — to talk about the steps we can take, both practical and bold, to restore faith in our democratic process again — to make American elections not endless competitions for cash, but true contests of ideas.

I understand the doubts about whether I personally am serious on campaign reform.

And I understand all too well the irony of our current fundraising system. Men and women of good intentions and high ideals want to protect the public interest, but have to raise private money in order to do so.

No decent public servant enters this line of work in order to raise money, but rather to serve the public. And most of those who donate the money would rather not be asked. We all know that the entire system needs reform. But we also know that there are millions of people who depend upon those who care about the public interest to fight for them, and who would be the ones hurt most if advocates for the public interest unilaterally disarmed, and left the field of battle to those who oppose both the public interest and campaign finance reform.

That was the choice I felt I faced in 1996 — and it was a battle to defend Medicare from deep cuts; to preserve our national commitment to education; to prevent our environmental laws from being re-written by the big polluters.

But that year, in fighting for what we believe in, Democrats, along with Republicans, engaged in fundraising that pushed the system to the breaking point and fueled further cynicism, which over time undermines the very things we're fighting for.

I've got the scars to prove it. And I know I may be an imperfect messenger for this cause. But the real wounds will be to our democracy itself unless we address this problem.

I also know that if we are led for the next four years by someone who actively opposes McCain-Feingold, has pledged to veto McCain-Feingold, and professes to see nothing wrong with the ills we seek to remedy, we certainly will make no progress. And indeed, the threat we now confront will become much worse.

So the first choice facing us, as always, is whether to try or not. And in simple terms, here is the contrast. I will try. And Governor Bush will not. He is committed to defending the status quo.

You know, Governor Bush talks a lot about being an outsider. But being an outsider is about more than where you live; it's about who you're fighting for. Believe it or not, Governor Bush wants to open the floodgates even wider to special interest donors and big money. That's not just defending the status quo — it's setting it in stone. And it will weigh down for decades the hopes and aspirations of our people.

I am committed to changing today's system of special-interest campaign financing. And although you have to take my word for this next point, I promise you that, if you entrust me with the Presidency, I will do more than try. I will lead. I will fight. And together with the thousands of Americans who are working to redeem the soul of our democracy, we will win this battle for campaign finance reform.

I know first-hand what is wrong with the way we fund political campaigns. I care very deeply about the integrity of our politics — and of course about my own integrity as well. My commitment to changing America's campaign finance laws is both personal and profound.

We cannot make the progress our nation needs until we end the dominance of money in our democracy. Let me cite a few examples:

Last year alone, the health and insurance industries lavished nearly seven million dollars in political contributions on both parties. Is it entirely an accident that we do not have a Patients' Bill of Rights, to ensure that medical decisions will be made not by the companies that made those donations, but by the doctors and nurses who deliver the care?

Last year alone, the big drug companies bestowed more than four million dollars on both parties. Is it entirely an accident that so many in Congress defend drug industry price-gouging, instead of passing a prescription drug benefit for seniors on Medicare?

Last year alone, the big tobacco companies offered up more than two-and-a-half million dollars in contributions — most of them to one party. Is it entirely an accident that Congress refuses to enact tough legislation to protect our children from the addiction of cigarettes?

And make no mistake, this cancer on our democracy is growing. The tide of special-interest money rises relentlessly with each successive election cycle. The estimate is that — unless we agree to ban soft money in this campaign — half a billion dollars of it will be raised and spent in this election, overwhelming our campaign laws in a cascade of unregulated cash.

Three years ago, I called for both parties to ban soft money entirely -- and I have urged Governor Bush to join with me and ban soft money now. I have also asked Governor Bush to join with me in eliminating the single largest expenditure in any modern campaign — the 30-and 60-second ads that consume more than half of every dollar that is raised and spent — and instead debate twice a week, every week until election day, with a specific issue each time.

So far, Governor Bush has refused to join with me to change the way we conduct our campaigns. Instead, he has treated the issue of campaign reform as a political shell game -- launching personal attacks to hide the fact that he opposes McCain-Feingold and every real reform.

His notion of campaign reform is so-called "Paycheck Protection" — which in fact protects powerful interests by preventing labor unions and working families from having their voices heard, while leaving private concentrations of power free to contribute endless sums of soft money -- without any call for "shareholder protection" -- to finance limitless so-called issue ads. The Wyly brothers support his plan.

Frankly, under my plan, union spending would be a moot issue, because my plan would ban soft money contributions from both labor and corporations. And by the way, in 1998 business interests contributed $ 167 million in soft money — sixteen times as much as labor unions.

Yet Governor Bush's notion of campaign finance reform is to raise the contribution limits — so special interests can give even more, and get even more in return.

Let me tell you: if those are the results, then I think it's fair to say that George W. Bush is no reformer. Results for sure — but no reform.

I make you this pledge today: If you elect me as your President, the McCain-Feingold bill will be the first domestic legislation I send to the Congress — on my first day in office.

I will fight as long as I have to, and as hard as I have to, to pass the bill that bears the names of Russ Feingold and John McCain. And then, with your help, I will be the President who signs McCain-Feingold into law.

It will ban soft money for good. It will require full disclosure of the independent expenditures and special-interest committees that funnel billions into campaign advertising. It will increase the resources and strengthen the investigative powers of the Federal Election Commission — which desperately needs powers equal to the great responsibility of protecting the integrity of our democracy.

It won't be easy to break the grip of the special interests and pass McCain-Feingold next year. But here is what I will do:

I will use the full reach of the bully pulpit to press the case for McCain-Feingold.

I will identify by name the special interests blocking the way, the money they are giving, and the officials who are doing their bidding.

I will listen to grassroots activists, support their mobilization, and build with them a powerful national coalition for reform.

And I will make it clear to every special-interest apologist that I will not give up, I will not back down, I will not walk away until McCain-Feingold, the people's will, is the law of the land.

Experience has shown us that the best path to political reform is step-by-step — and passing McCain-Feingold is the critical first step.

But we must go further in the term of the next President.

The next important steps are tough new lobbying reform, publicly-guaranteed TV time for debates and advocacy by candidates, and a crackdown on issue advocacy ads.

I will propose and fight for a law requiring monthly disclosure of all lobbyists' activities, posted on the Internet and fully accessible to the public. Every citizen will be able to find out to whom lobbyists have contributed, and the specific meetings they've gained to influence specific pieces of legislation.

Full disclosure of lobbying activities can help dry up the supply of special-interest money. Free TV time can help reduce the demand for it.

I said more than ten years ago — and I still believe today — that "broadcasters are given a government license for exclusive use of the public airwaves. In return, they are expected to operate in the public interest."

I will strongly advocate the approach developed by Paul Taylor. Every broadcaster should give every candidate for federal office five minutes of air time a night in the last thirty days before the general election. Cable operators should work with their content providers to establish a similar practice.

And if broadcast stations air independent issue ads, I believe they should be required by the FCC to give — for free -- the same amount of air time to both candidates in the race. If broadcasters wanted to avoid the requirement to give such free time, all they have to do is say no to the special interests who want to influence our campaigns. I will petition the FCC to issue a ruling that recognizes this requirement as a necessary part of broadcasters' obligation to serve the public. And I will appoint commissioners who — like some already on the FCC — believe the public interest must be protected in new ways, in light of new threats facing it.

Step by step, we can reduce the influence of special-interest money in campaigns. But our ultimate goal must be to eliminate it altogether.

Some believe the answer is a system of public financing for Congressional and Presidential elections, like the one I first supported in the 1970's.

However, bills to establish public financing of Congressional elections have been introduced in every single session of Congress for a quarter-century -- and not a single comprehensive public financing proposal has passed Congress. Almost none have been approved by even one Congressional Committee.

It is time for a new approach to achieve the fundamental goal of freeing our democracy from the coils of special-interest cash.

So I propose the creation of a non-partisan Democracy Endowment — to follow up on the urgent reform of our campaign finance laws by McCain-Feingold with a revolutionary change to further safeguard our self-government in the 21st Century.

The Democracy Endowment will raise more than $ 7 billion over seven years, and then, with the interest and the returns on investment, finance Senate and House general election campaigns — with no other contributions allowed to candidates who accept the funding.

Let me be clear: this is a non-partisan endowment for our common democracy. You can't give to any one party; you can't give to any one candidate. Every qualified candidate will have access to these funds according to a formula that is based on the district or state in which they are running. The views of the donor will have absolutely no influence on their views of the recipient. In this way, we will break the connection between the giving of money and the gaining of influence in these election contests.

To raise the funds for the Endowment, there will be a 100 percent tax deduction for any individual or corporation that contributes — on a first-come, first-serve basis — until the Endowment is filled. And as soon as it is filled, the tax deduction will sunset.

As President, I will work aggressively to secure these funds -- and I will seek the help of every corporation, every union, every major foundation, every dot-com millionaire and every other citizen in America.

If the endowment is not filled within seven years, the difference will be made up by free TV time — required of broadcasters as a condition for their licenses.

This will provide a powerful incentive for broadcasters to air public service announcements that will help fill the fund.

From McCain-Feingold to lobbying reform and a crack-down on special interest issue ads, to the Democracy Endowment, our cause is nothing less than the most sweeping campaign finance reform in history. And it will not be easy. For just as the tobacco companies battle every major measure to reduce teen smoking — just as the HMO lobbyists fight against measures to ensure the best health care, not just the cheapest — they and all the other special interests will be joined together in waging a mighty war to preserve their place and their privileges under the current political system.

But let us understand what is at stake here -- our faith in our own self-government, and ultimately, the very future of our democracy.

If we believe in the ideal of one person, one vote, as my father so strongly did — then let us fight for the reforms that make sure every vote counts equally.

If we believe in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people — then let us have an election process of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Some candidates portray themselves as being above the will of the people. They forget that, in spite of the system's degradation, their power still derives from the will of the people. I need you to keep raising your voices in a grassroots movement for reform. I need you to give me your mandate to carry this banner forward.

Together, we can end the money chase, and create a system where we pursue our highest ideals. And if you entrust me with the Presidency, I make you this pledge: I will fight for political reform. I will fight for you. I will fight to give the power in our politics back to the people. Thank you.

Albert Gore, Jr., Remarks at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project