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 ( 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.

You may also like

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)