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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 17, 1996


THE PRESIDENT: Good morning. Today I want to talk about what we need to do in Washington to make our democracy work better for all Americans so that we can meet our challenges together and take advantage of the enormous possibilities of our future.

In my State of the Union Address, I outlined seven challenges we face as we move into the future -- challenges we must meet if we are to keep the American Dream alive for all our people and unite our country around our shared values.

The first six challenges are challenges we all face together -- strengthening our families and giving all children a good childhood; providing better educational opportunities for all Americans; enhancing the economic security of all our working families through great access to health care, secure pensions, lifetime education and more good jobs; fighting crime and gangs and drugs so that all Americans can feel safe again, so that crime is the exception, not the rule; protecting our environment; maintaining our world leadership for peace and freedom. These challenges we must meet together as partners.

The seventh challenge is really America's challenge to all of us in public service. It is a challenge to continue to reinvent our government so that it works better and costs less, and to make our democracy work better for the American people by limiting the influence of special interests and expanding the influence of our people.

Today I'm in New Hampshire, where citizens will exercise their responsibility as voters in the first primary of the year on Tuesday. It's no secret that even here in New Hampshire, with its proud tradition of town meetings and studied debate over the issues, people want all of us in politics to clean up our act. The fact is, organized interests have too much power in the halls of government. These influence groups too often promote their own interest at the expense of the public interest. Too often they operate in secret. Too often they have special privileges ordinary Americans don't even know exist. And elections, where ordinary voters should have the loudest voice, have become so expensive that big money can sometimes drown those voices out.

Yet we have made progress in the last three years. Shortly after I took office, I implemented the toughest ethics code on executive officials in our history. Senior appointees are barred from lobbying their own agencies for five years after they leave, and they can never lobby for foreign governments.

In 1993 we repealed the tax loophole that lets lobbyists deduct the cost of their activities. And early last year, Congress finally passed a law that applies to Congress the laws they impose on the private sector.

Last June I met with Speaker Gingrich in Claremont, New Hampshire, for a town meeting. The very first question we took was from Frank McConnell, a retired steel worker, who wanted us to launch a bipartisan effort to clean up politics and curb the power of special interests through passing campaign finance reform. I'm meeting Mr. McConnell later today to thank him and to bring him up to date.

Last year Congress answered my call to stop taking gifts, meals and trips from lobbyists. In December I signed a bipartisan bill to bring lobbyists out from the darkrooms and into the bright light of public scrutiny. That's half of what Mr. McConnell asked us to do.

When this law's first deadline approached earlier this week, lobbyists were pouring into registration offices for the very first time to let the public know who they are, what they do, who pays them, and how much. This is a tough law. It's good for the American people. I'm proud to have signed it. And I congratulate the members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, who voted for it. Now we have a chance to finish the job, to make the way we finance campaigns work better, too.

Two distinguished United States senators have sponsored a sensible campaign finance reform bill that can serve as a foundation for real reform. John McCain is a Republican Senator from Arizona. Russ Feingold is a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin. On many issues it's fair to say that Senator McCain and Senator Feingold don't see eye to eye. But they do know this: The health of our democracy goes way beyond partisan politics, and it's high time to reduce the influence money has on elections.

The McCain-Feingold bill includes limits on spending, curbs on the influence of PACs and lobbyists, and an end to the soft money system. The bill will discourage the attack ads that have become all too common by requiring candidates to take responsibility for putting them on the air. Perhaps most important of all, this bill provides free TV time for candidates so that they can talk directly to citizens about real issues and real ideas.

All these campaign finance reform ideas are ideas I embraced back in 1992 when I was running in New Hampshire. Now, as we work to reform campaign finance, we must do everything we can to ensure that we open, not limit, the political process. Our goal is to take the reins of our democracy away from big special interests, from big money, and to put them back into the hands of ordinary Americans, where they belong.

Our bottom-line test should be: Will our efforts make our government more representative, not less representative? Will reform make our elected representatives more likely to promote the public interest, even when it conflicts with powerful special interests?

We have an historic opportunity to renew our democracy and strength our country. If we truly believe in a government that puts ordinary Americans ahead of the powerful and privileged, then we must act and act now. I call on members of Congress from both parties to follow through on what Frank McConnell asked of the Speaker and me: Let's put politics aside, work together, and get this done.

If you take pride in our democracy, as I know all of you do, then let's pass a bipartisan campaign finance reform bill now and give the American people something all of us can be proud of.

Thanks for listening.