Below the Beltway: Goo-Goos Versus Populists

Since the election, almost every group in town has been
meeting to develop a position on campaign finance reform. The
Brookings Institution's Tom Mann has organized a working
group that holds luncheons and has its own web page (www.brookings.edu/gs/campaign/home.htm).
Organizations from Common Cause to Citizen Action are holding
meetings of what they call the "reform community."
Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute,
summed up much of the prevailing mood at a Brookings luncheon
November 13. "I used to think of the problem of campaign
finance as a low-grade fever," he said. "But in this
election, the system suffered from a massive heart attack."

To date, the groups are advancing two different kinds of plans.
Common Cause favors the McCain-Feingold bill, which was introduced
last year by the Republican senator from Arizona and the Democratic
senator from Wisconsin. The Center for Responsive Politics and
other public interest groups are emphasizing voluntary public
funding [see Ellen Miller's "Clean Elections, How To,"].
In addition, Ornstein, Mann, and other members of the
Brookings group have offered a variety of piecemeal proposals—from
free television to a $100 tax credit for campaign contributions.

It's difficult to evaluate these plans because they reflect different
political priorities and therefore different criteria for success.
Common Cause is a classic good government organization. It wants
to eliminate "interested money" in campaigns, whether
it comes from business or labor. (One of the first acts of Ann
McBride, the new president of Common Cause, was to pull a forthcoming
article about the AFL-CIO and politics from its magazine because,
the author was informed, she thought it too prolabor.) The good
government reformers want individual citizens to determine elections
based on what Ornstein calls "dialogue, debate, and deliberation."
The Center for Responsive Politics, Ralph Nader's Public Citizen,
and Citizen Action are more populist. They worry that under the
current system, business PACs and the wealthy donors exercise
preponderant influence over workers and their organizations. They
want to recast the rules to favor the latter.

In Washington, the goo-goos get the most attention. The
best-known initiative is McCain-Feingold, which Clinton endorsed
in the last week of the election. Its premise is that local individuals,
not organizations, should contribute to candidates. It abolishes
PACs and would also outlaw some of what now passes for independent
expenditure campaigns. (For instance, prior association between
an organization and a candidate would disqualify a group as independent.)
It would create voluntary spending limits. Candidates for Congress
would be offered half-price advertising on television in exchange
for their willingness to limit how much they spend ($550,000 for
House campaigns and varying amounts for the Senate) and from whom
they raise it (they would have to raise 60 percent of their funds
from individuals in their own state).

The bill has its merits. Given that most of the political money
comes from business and the wealthy, spending limits generally
alter the tilt of the political system for the better. But not
by that much. McCain-Feingold might eliminate business and labor
PACs, but it would not eliminate the preponderance of wealthy
donors. Most business money is currently raised through individual
contributions rather than PACs. And the local requirement could
be easily finessed. Eliminating the role of organizations in
campaigns would be a mistake—it's really the only way for individuals
who are not billionaires to exert power—but even if you accept
this good government objective, McCain-Feingold would not accomplish
it. The Supreme Court would be extremely unlikely to allow a ban
on PACs and would definitely not agree to onerous restrictions
on independent campaign expenditures. (In Colorado Republicans
v. FEC
this June, the court went beyond the earlier Buckley
v. Valeo
decisions and ruled that even political parties could
not be prevented from making unlimited independent campaign expenditures.)
If independent organizations continued to exist, the bill would
have the paradoxical effect of making candidates, who would be
restricted in their expenditures, pawns of those organizations
that could run unlimited campaigns on their behalf. Far from eliminating
the influence of elite interest groups, McCain-Feingold might
well strengthen them.

While Common Cause doggedly defends McCain-Feingold, other
good government types have abandoned it—not only because of its
internal defects, but because it has no support among the Republican
leadership in Congress. "The premise of our discussion,"
Tom Mann told the November 13 Brookings luncheon, "is that
McCain-Feingold probably won't be enacted, and if it were, it
wouldn't do any good." At that lunch, Mann, Ornstein, and
former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor offered a set
of mini-reforms that they thought could garner bipartisan support.
But most of these had even less to recommend them than McCain-Feingold.
Mann and Ornstein back legislation that would eliminate the loophole
that allowed the AFL-CIO to run a $35 million "educational"
campaign this election. They want any advertisements that mention
a candidate by name to be classified as independent campaign expenditures.
That means the unions couldn't use dues money and would have to
disclose and limit their contributors. Mann and Ornstein insist
they are not picking on the AFL-CIO—in the future, business will
take even greater advantage of this loophole. But its immediate
effect would be to stigmatize labor unions and to exaggerate the
current tilt of the electoral system.

Ornstein also wants to offer campaign contributors a $100 tax
credit. He believes this will elevate the role of individuals
over interest groups in the political process. "It will encourage
contributions that no one can argue are 'interested money,'"
he said. But it will merely encourage an illusion of individual
power and participation among individuals. It's not contributions
from lonely individuals, but those from individuals associated
with businesses and organizations, that drive campaigns and influence
candidates. Taylor wants the networks to grant free television
time to candidates on the condition that the candidates speak
directly into the camera. Like other goo-goos, Taylor thinks negative
advertising is the bane of today's politics. But there is nothing
inherently less truthful or more misleading about an attack ad
than about a candidate's prepared statement into a television
camera. Contrast the canned statements in debates with Steve Forbes's
devastating and accurate ads in the New Hampshire primary against
Bob Dole and Phil Gramm's tax records. Taylor's proposal—and the
calls for "civility" in politics—simply reflect an upper-class
disdain for the way popular politics have evolved in this country.
Like the dislike for "entrenched incumbents" (another
good government bugaboo), it's a legacy of the reformers' Mugwump
past.

Almost the entire reform community backs public funding,
but Citizen Action and the Center for Responsive Politics have
made it the center of their strategy. Some proponents of public
funding, like Josh Rosenkranz, the director of the Brennan Center,
would like to overturn Buckley v. Valeo, which bars mandatory
limits on candidate expenditures, but most of the public interest
groups have decided to accept the Court's ruling and work around
it. The public interest groups favor a voluntary public system
that would function like the current system for funding presidential
elections. In the last election, Maine passed an initiative that
would institute such a voluntary system for state office campaigns.

Part of the rationale for public funding is good government. It
would eliminate the role of organized money in directly funding
campaigns. And unlike the current system or McCain-Feingold, it
would give politicians a reprieve from constant fundraising. The
public interest groups argue that it would also meet populist
objectives. It would eliminate all private contributors to a candidate's
election campaign. Given the current preponderance of business
and the wealthy, that would change the balance of power in the
electoral system. It might not foster candidates more likely to
listen to the AFL-CIO or Citizen Action, but it would certainly
make it possible for candidates, particularly in lower-budget
House races, to be more independent of Philip Morris, Amway, and
Golden Rule Insurance.

Public financing is not, however, a panacea. It's better than
the current system, but like McCain-Feingold, it may simply displace
the locus of political struggle from candidates to interest groups.
Even if the country were to adopt, and the FEC were to enforce,
a provision granting candidates matching funds against independent
expenditure campaigns, many political races would become like
the referenda battles in California, where groups on either side
spend millions. That will be particularly true of Senate races
where money and the sheer quantity of advertising can be decisive.
The crucial battle in Iowa would not have been between Tom Harkin
and Jim Lightfoot, but between the major ad campaigns run on their
behalf. (Indeed, in this election, some congressional races, like
J.D. Hayworth versus Steve Owens in Arizona, devolved by the last
month into battles between contending independent organizations.)
And it's not a solution to ban independent expenditures: The Supreme
Court would not agree, and they would be right not to. It runs
directly counter to the First Amendment.

Much of the worry about campaign finance goes back to the
original promise of democracy: that the equality of universal
suffrage would counter the organized inequality of the economic
system. It was, unfortunately, a false promise. The inequality
of the economic system reasserted itself in politics in myriad
ways. To stand up for themselves, average citizens could not
simply vote, but also had to organize in labor unions, civil rights
organizations, environmental groups, civic organizations, and
other associations, and they had to work through the political
parties. Many of the good government reformers and some of the
populists are still trying to make good on the original promise
of democracy. Through legislation, they want to create an oasis
of political equality within a desert of economic inequality.
But for the most part, it won't work. The goal of political reform
cannot be to eliminate all organized interests, but to create
a genuine democratic pluralism, where the organized interests
of workers and citizens can contend equally with those of business
and the wealthy.

Most of Washington's reform community shared Ornstein's horror
at the campaign practices in the last election. And there were
atrocities—from the Republican reliance on K Street lobbyists
and campaign contributors to write their legislation to the Clinton
administration's use of our foreign policy as bait for Indonesian
and Taiwanese campaign contributions. But overall, the campaign
was not that bad. Because of the unprecedented effort of the
AFL-CIO's campaign, alongside that of environmental and other
organizations, the electoral arena actually showed signs of a
renascent democratic pluralism. The AFL-CIO may have bent the
campaign laws (as did the Christian Coalition and U.S. Chamber
of Commerce), but it also made the system more democratic. Campaign
reform is important, and worth pursuing, but in the end the goal
must not be to eliminate interest groups and "interested
money," but to create a more equitable balance of interests
in the society.

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