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Campaigns, Commercials, and Computers

Television has helped turn politics into a money game. The path toward righteousness may lie through another technology.

The other day, as I was reading yet another cautionary op-ed essay about campaign financing, it occurred to me that when it comes to politics, engineers are pretty virtuous folk. Then, scarcely a moment later, with a sudden pang of guilt, I thought: Yes, but if it weren’t for engineers, we wouldn’t be in such a mess in the first place.

Engineers are mostly law-abiding professionals, little involved with politics, dismayed by the escalating scandal of fund-raising and elections. The major professional societies are, in IRS parlance, 501(c)(3) corporations, committed to “charitable,” “scientific,” or “education-al” purposes, and so are forbidden to engage in partisan political activities. Such societies may not give money to candidates for political office, and they are restricted in how much of their budgets they can devote to lobbying on behalf of issues. The few engineering organizations that are classified instead as “business leagues,” and thus are permitted to establish political action committees, raise less than $10 per member-well within the bounds of propriety.

ast year, for example, the National Society of Professional Engineers’s PAC raised about $80,000 from the society’s 63,000 members, and gave support to 87 “pro-engineering” candidates nationwide-politicians who favor strong government support for R&D, science education, renewing infrastructure, and cleaning up the environment. What’s good for engineering appears to be good for the nation.

But to what avail is engineering morality when we are told that the campaign-finance crisis stems from technological progress, which in turn results from engineering endeavors? In the world of election campaigns, it is television that has made all the difference. Although the medium has been crucial to the election of every president since JFK, political TV commercials have proved to be more potent than anyone guessed they would be. Money has always been a central element in politics, but television amplifies to an alarming degree the ability to translate money into votes. Historical examples abound of engineering advances producing unanticipated consequences, and here we have one that is truly distressing.

While technology lies at the root of the problem, technology might also provide a remedy. The day after last November’s election, the governor of Wisconsin, responding to public outcry over outrageous campaign tactics, appointed a bipartisan commission to recommend improvements in the election law. The panel concluded that the campaign-financing process is broken not only because TV advertising is so expensive and thus requires fundraising that often skirts the law, but also because voters have no ready way to find out who is contributing to whose campaigns. The process is invisible and unaccountable, and the system of regulation is “seriously strained.” By law, candidates must disclose information on contributions and expenditures, but this information remains difficult to decipher-for regulators, the press, political rivals, and particularly the public. In Texas, for instance, anyone wanting to look at a candidate’s list of contributors must travel to Austin-a 3-hour drive from Dallas, 10 hours from El Paso-and wade through stacks of paper.

Thus the key to fundamental reform of campaign financing, according to the Wisconsin commission, is to establish a coherent system of public disclosure. Yes, giving limits need to be reviewed, as does the loophole of “soft money”-funds raised by political parties outside the control of campaign regulations. But the biggest impact will occur if states set up computer databases that will simplify the task of finding up-to-date records of contributions and spending. Such a system exists in Washington State, where candidates must periodically file complete reports electronically. The state posts these financial disclosures on the Internet. The director of the Citizens’ Research Foundation at the University of Southern California hails the Washington State approach as “a model.” Other states, including Maryland and Kentucky, are moving toward similarly sophisticated systems.

And there we have it. Public disclosure of campaign records, kept up to date and available to everyone who has access to a computer-this is the technological fix needed to counter the technological hazard. The transgressions wrought by television are to be redeemed by the computer. Will such measures prove effective? Some knowledgeable people seem to think so. Of course, technical ingenuity alone will not completely resolve the crisis. Moral commitment is also required, and here, by maintaining high standards in their own political activity, engineers can also serve.

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