Posted on July 20, 1998 in Washington Watch

The U.S. congress is under intense public pressure to reform the system of campaign finance. The scandals of the 1996 Presidential elections and the ever increasing amounts of money that candidates and parties must raise in order to be competitive in elections has contributed to this drive for change.

For more than a year and a half now, since the 1996 election, little was done to enact new laws to reform the political system. There was one serious effort in the Senate but it failed twice since the leadership wouldn’t even allow the bill to come to a vote.

Instead the Republican leaders in the Congress seemed content with seeking partisan gain by spending millions of dollars on over one dozen different hearings and investigations into the 1996 campaigns.

While the problem of money in politics is a bipartisan one, no bipartisan cooperation could be found to create a serious move toward reform.

Sensing that they dare not go into the November elections without having even attempted to pass finance reform legislation, the House of Representatives is now considering a bill which is quite similar to the bill which the Senate would not pass.

Arab Americans and other U.S. ethnic communities, who share the concerns of the broader public with the campaign finance system, will, however, no longer be able to support this congressional effort. This is because during the past week, the bill was amended to include a provision that will be damaging to the civil rights and political participation of ethnics in the U.S. political process.

The provision in question is an amendment that will eliminate non-citizen contributions from U.S. federal elections. A broad coalition of U.S. ethnic communities, with Arab Americans playing a leading role, has strongly opposed this amendment because they fear its discriminatory application.

While a ban on contributions from “foreign” sources and individuals has long been a part of U.S. campaign finance law, legal permanent residents (LPRs) of the United States who are not yet citizens have been excluded from the category of “foreign.”

In 1974 Senator Lloyd Bentsen sponsored the amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act that sought to define more clearly who a foreign national was. In his amendment, Senator Bentsen specifically protected legal permanent residents from the ban on contributions saying, “immigrants in the United States who have lived here for years and who spend most of their adult lives in this country; they pay American taxes and for all intents and purposes are citizens of the United States except perhaps in the strictest sense of the word.”

Banning contributions from legal permanent residents plays into the nativism of anti-immigrant extremists. It establishes legal permanent residents as “foreigners.” Advocates for this ban even describe this “reform” as getting “foreign money” out of American politics.

The fact is that almost all legal permanent residents are law abiding, hard working family people who earn their money in the United States, in U.S. jobs as small business people, laborers, professionals, etc.–there money is “American money.” Legal permanent residents are an integral part of the United States, representing 4% of the total U.S. population.

Legal immigrants are actually required to reside in the United States. Like U.S. citizens, they are subject to federal taxation on their worldwide income, whether the income is earned in the United States or abroad and are required to register for the draft. In fact, there are nearly 20,000 legal immigrants now serving voluntarily in the military and more than 20% of the congressional Medal of Honor recipients in U.S. wars have been legal immigrants or naturalized Americans. Like U.S. citizens, legal immigrants are stakeholders in America and want to support candidates who they believe will make it a better place to live.

In fact, the violations that are alleged to have occurred in the 1996 elections by both Republicans and Democrats were not as a result of the actions of LPRs. In most instances, the illegalities alleged were committed by either foreign sources or U.S. citizens. Directing legislation at LPRs is, in fact, scapegoating a vulnerable constituency.

If this law is enacted, discrimination will likely occur against many ethnic Americans. In fact, there are recent experiences to demonstrate this fact.

After the 1996 elections, the Democratic Party, reeling from the negative publicity created by numerous allegations of campaign finance violations, attempted to initiate some unilateral reforms, one of which was a ban on contributions from LPRs. The party initiated a program to call donors to inquire about their citizenship status. I received one of those calls. I told the caller that not only was I a citizen born in the United States but I was a member of the Democratic National Committee, the governing body of the party. The caller responded that I should not be offended since I was only one of many individuals who was being called. When I requested the list of names, I noted that they were all Asian, Hispanic or ethnic (Italian, Polish, Arab, etc).

As Congresswoman Patsy Mink, an Asian American Democrat from Hawaii has noted, “the decision to outlaw campaign contributions from legal residents with green cards is an outrageous denial of the basic First Amendment freedom of people legally in the United States to express themselves…[further] Any restriction against legal residents will target all persons, especially those who have foreign sounding names…even though they are citizens.”

As a result of concerted action by a broad coalition of ethnic groups, we were able to overturn this decision by the Democratic Party. Now, however, this same provision has come back in the form of a bipartisan piece of legislation. It too will be opposed.

What should be noted, however, is that this entire effort by the Congress is almost certainly an exercise in futility. The bill, as amended may, in the end, pass in the House of Representatives, but it will not pass in the Senate. Therefore it will not become law.

When this Congress ends before the November 1998 elections, all of its unfinished business ends as well. Therefore, there will, in all probability, not be any campaign finance reform in 1998.

What is disturbing is that Congress is not legislating, they are politicking–attempting to create the appearance of acting on campaign reform so that they won’t have to face voters in November and admit that they did nothing. It is, therefore, doubly disturbing that in this charade they have chosen to scapegoat immigrants who are LPRs. This is a dangerous move that bodes ill for all immigrants and this is why it will be fought.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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