Controversy: Clean Elections Continued


Ellen S. Miller, "Clean Elections, How to,"

January-February 1997.

John B. Judis, "Goo-Goos Versus Populists,"

January-February 1997.

Paul Starr, "Democracy v. Dollar,"

March-April 1997.

One might have thought (or at least hoped) that the revelations
of scandalous fundraising practices in the 1996 campaign would
improve prospects for enacting much-needed reforms, much as tales
of the outrageous behavior by the Committee to Reelect the President
provided the impetus for the last major rewrite of campaign finance
law in 1974. But the Republican leadership in Congress has signaled
clearly that its only interest is in focusing public attention
on the illegal and improper conduct of President Clinton's re-election
effort, not in restructuring the "American way" of financing
elections. And congressional Democrats show every sign of wanting
an attractive political position to defend in the 1998 midterm
elections, not a change in campaign finance law.

Perhaps more discouraging, however, is the disarray in the reform
community, nowhere more evident than in the trio of articles on
campaign finance in the last two issues of The American Prospect.
What unites Ellen Miller, John Judis, and Paul Starr is skepticism
of two strategies being pursued by reformers—a constitutional
amendment giving Congress the power to limit spending and a legal
challenge to Buckley v. Valeo—and disdain for the McCain-Feingold
bill, the reform vehicle of choice of President Clinton, Common
Cause, and the editorial boards of the New York Times and
Washington Post. Their critique of McCain-Feingold is withering.
Miller dismisses the legislation as an incomprehensible and ineffectual
maze of limits and incentives that fails to deal with the pernicious
influence of money in politics. In Miller's view, any campaign
finance system that retains a substantial role for private money
is fatally flawed. Judis is attracted to the bill's spending limits
but fears it will do little to diminish the preponderance of wealthy
donors and might well increase the influence of elite interest
groups. Starr faults McCain-Feingold for its failure to provide
public financing or to slow the money chase as well as the adverse
impact of its PAC ban on the labor movement. All three implicitly
agree that it is highly unlikely to pass in the 105th Congress
and that it would do little to advance the important objectives
of reform if it did.

While they agree on those approaches of the reform community that
they oppose, Miller, Judis, and Starr find less common ground
on an affirmative agenda. Miller's Clean Money Option, a voluntary
full public finance system based on a proposal approved by Maine
voters in 1996, might achieve the populist objectives sought by
Judis and Starr by eliminating private contributors to a candidate's
campaign. But Judis worries that it would simply shift the locus
of political struggle from candidates to interest groups by turning
elections into the equivalent of referenda battles contested by
well-heeled groups. Starr more unequivocally supports the bottom-up
strategy of building support for full public financing outlined
by Miller, but feels the need for certain auxiliary precautions
to deal with the power of incumbency, most notably a constitutional
amendment to limit consecutive terms of service in the House of
Representatives. Miller is silent on the question of term limits;
perhaps she, like me, couldn't imagine a thoughtful liberal seriously
advancing an idea so thoroughly discredited during the debates
of the last several years. Judis dismisses Starr's concern about
entrenched incumbents as "another good government bugaboo."

To what is a faithful TAP reader to think? With
liberal friends like these, campaign finance reform seems destined
for failure, in the 105th Congress and for the foreseeable future.

If the objective, as Starr suggests, is not only to reduce the
power of money in elections but also to produce a more equitable
balance between the parties (in other words, help the Democrats),
this does not seem a propitious time for reform. It's hard to
imagine the Republican majority in Congress agreeing to a package
of reforms designed to boost the prospects of their partisan adversaries.
From this perspective, Miller's proposed long march through the
states toward full public financing might be as promising as anything
transpiring in Washington. Indeed, Miller dismisses efforts to
build bipartisan support in Congress for a package of piecemeal
reforms. What's needed, she argues, is a bold plan capable of
mobilizing broad and intense public support. Public reactions
to the Clean Money Option, as measured in surveys, focus groups,
editorial commentary, the Maine vote, and organizing efforts around
the country, lead Miller to believe she has found the vehicle
for doing just that.

While a serious test of the public's willingness to publicly finance
elections is welcome, I am a bit less sanguine than Miller about
the outcome. I suspect the public might balk at providing the
large sums needed to fully finance campaigns for federal office
outside a friends-and-neighbors state like Maine. It is difficult
and expensive for candidates, especially challengers, to reach
a largely uninterested and disengaged public. Like Judis, I also
worry that candidates inside a full public finance system could
be overwhelmed by groups operating outside the regulated system,
exploiting issue-advocacy and independent spending loopholes.
I also wonder if it isn't important to retain some limited role
for private money, as a test of the popular support for candidates
before qualifying for public subsidies, as a means of expressing
intensity and channeling organizational engagement in the democratic
process. But whatever the outcome, Miller's Public Campaign will
initiate a public debate about the way we finance our elections
that is long overdue.

Should reformers attracted to the Clean Money Option, a constitutional
amendment to limit spending, or a litigation strategy designed
to overturn Buckley keep their distance from the admittedly
incremental steps being pursued in Washington? Is it true that
the more bankrupt the campaign finance system becomes, the greater
will be the likelihood of passing a transforming, comprehensive
reform? I think not. A partial step in the right direction will
strengthen the reform movement, not weaken it. Policy deadlock
will ensure that the campaign finance system goes further out
of control, making the repair work all the more difficult. Reformers
would be wise to acknowledge the array of political forces that
prevents their favored approaches from being adopted, and then
to explore what constructive steps might be taken in this environment—an
environment in which support from reform-minded Republicans is
essential to any steps forward.

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This is the approach that my four colleagues (Norman Ornstein,
Paul Taylor, Michael Malbin, and Anthony Corrado) and I have taken
in proposing a package of reforms to deal with some of the most
egregious flaws in the system as it operated in 1996. Designed
for consideration in the 105th Congress, our package has no voluntary
spending limits, no new restrictions on PACs, no direct public
funding. Yet in proposing to ban soft money, limit the blatant
political abuse of issue-advocacy, provide free broadcast time
to candidates and parties, encourage small donors, and strengthen
disclosure and enforcement, we suggest changes in law that could
have substantial salutary effects on our electoral process. Judis
dismisses our effort as another misguided exercise in good government.
He argues that any steps to restrict issue-advocacy will disproportionately
harm labor unions, an assessment we believe is just plain wrong.
He believes a tax credit for small donors is pointless, since
contributions from lonely individuals do not drive campaigns and
influence candidates. And he is offended that we, like other goo-goos,
would use free television time as a lever for forcing longer (one-minute)
political spots in which the candidate must appear. All and all,
Judis fears our proposals would do little to advance the primary
goal of political reform, the creation of genuine democratic pluralism,
one featuring a more equitable balance of interests in society.
It is to his credit that Judis has the intellectual honesty to
say that he doesn't have an alternative strategy to advance that
goal. But does he really think that the current system will do

I leave it to readers of TAP to judge for themselves
whether the Judis critique of our proposals hits the mark. It
seems to us that each of our proposals has a good chance of achieving
some valued ends without in any way foreclosing additional reforms
down the road. The scramble for soft money leads Democrats as
well as Republicans to court wealthy individuals and companies;
eliminating it makes sense even if Democratic Party committees
are more competitive with their Republican counterparts in raising
soft than hard dollars. (And remember that the source of the Democrats'
competitive position is now the basis of a full-blown scandal;
it is unlikely to be matched in future years.) Treating political
ads during the election season as express advocacy (and, therefore,
subject to federal regulation) is consistent with the purposes
of present law; labor will be overwhelmed by corporations in the
future if this evasion of the law is allowed to stand. A broadcast
bank has greater potential for equalizing resources among parties
and candidates than any other plausible measure.

It's time for a little more constructive engagement among campaign
finance reformers. Compromise is not a dirty word; it is the currency
of our Madisonian system of democracy. The test is whether compromise
proposals can move part of the way toward enduring reform. Worthwhile
campaign finance reform objectives can be achieved in the 105th
Congress, if members of the reform community stop directing their
most intense fire at each other and work instead to grasp the


Nearly all of us in the reform community support the call
for a long-term, grassroots-oriented campaign on behalf of comprehensive
campaign finance reform, as outlined in these pages by Ellen Miller
and Paul Starr. But in the short term, a more immediate problem
commands our attention: The explosion in the use of loopholes
to get around election laws in 1996 radically altered the landscape
of campaign finance.

Unless we act now to address this problem, we risk the most basic
safeguards against corruption—safeguards that, while far from
perfect, have at least tempered the influence of political money
over the last few decades. Incremental reform to close these loopholes
will not eliminate the role of organized interests in elections,
as John Judis worried in his article, "Goo-Goos Versus Populists."
Quite the contrary, it will make those interests accountable while
ensuring that big money doesn't overwhelm the system, paving the
way for broader reforms down the road.

The place to start is the soft-money loophole, which allows corporations,
unions, and individuals to make unlimited contributions that allegedly
go to "party building," and not individual candidates.
In a year when voter turnout dropped below 50 percent, no one
would dispute the need for more voter registration drives and
mobilizing. But most soft-money donations—given in hundred-thousand-dollar
increments—are now funneled to aid candidates' campaigns. Closing
this loophole would be easy: We could apply to the parties restrictions
similar to those that now apply to candidates. In other words,
we could prohibit parties from accepting direct contributions
from corporations or unions, and set limits on the contributions
from individuals and political action committees. That would be
the end of soft money.

Incremental reform could also close the issue-advocacy loophole.
In the last election, organizations spent millions of dollars
on ads that promoted particular candidacies but did not count
toward contribution or spending limits because they were technically
about "issues," not individuals running for office.
A ban on issue-advocacy that endangers First Amendment free speech
protections is not the answer. Instead, we can close this loophole
simply by tightening the definition of issue-advocacy and by specifying
that any ad with a candidate's name or face appearing after Labor
Day be considered a political campaign ad, and thus subject to
existing regulations on the source and size of political contributions.

We could do much the same thing for independent expenditures.
Currently, individuals and organizations can spend unlimited amounts
of money on behalf of a candidate so long as the activities aren't
officially coordinated with the candidate. The problem again is
legal semantics. We need to broaden the definition of coordination
to ensure that expenditures are truly independent of the campaign.
Under a revised law, for example, we could define the sharing
of consultants by candidates and ostensibly independent groups
as coordinated activities—thus reigning them in under current
campaign finance laws.

It is true that more sweeping reform measures would take
care of these problems. Unfortunately, the anti-reformers won
the 1996 election. A brief survey of the leadership in the House
and Senate suggests that no one should hold her breath awaiting
comprehensive reform legislation. House Speaker Newt Gingrich
publicly argues that we need more money in politics, not less.
And Senator Mitch McConnell has already announced that he can
block any bill that limits spending by candidates—the heart of
previous reform proposals. At the same time, the Democrats have
missed the opportunity to become the party of reform. Once Senator
McConnell said he would filibuster any bill containing spending
limits, the Democrats reconfirmed that spending limits would be
the cornerstone of their proposals. Given the current leadership,
limited reforms targeting these loopholes stand a better chance
of becoming law.

Campaign finance was a problem long before 1996, but the new channels
for private money that bypass contribution limits, combined with
the ineffective enforcement of existing laws, have set the stage
for a breakdown of all meaningful safeguards. We should be laying
the groundwork for comprehensive reform. At the same time, we
should also be pursuing the kind of incremental, achievable, and
responsible reforms that might keep the system from going completely
out of control.


It is heartening to read Thomas Mann and Becky Cain, each
longtime and committed advocates of electoral reform, offering
welcome and constructive words of support for the Clean Money
Option, which I described in my article in the January-February
issue of The American Prospect. Beneath Mann's overall
praise, however, are several concerns that can be easily answered.
Mann, as well as John Judis in his earlier piece, questions whether
the public will embrace the Clean Money Option. In fact, there
is ample evidence that Americans will support it, particularly
when such a system is linked to an end to private special-interest
funding and overall limits on spending. As for Mann's and Judis's
worry that virtuous candidates operating within such a system
could be overwhelmed by outside forces exploiting loopholes like
independent expenditures, the Clean Money system addresses that
by supplying complying candidates with additional equalizing funds.
(Model federal legislation contemplates a match of up to 5 times
the candidate's initial funding.) And the Clean Money Option does
retain a legitimate role for private money as a test of popular
support—in the form of the substantial number of $5 contributions
candidates have to raise before qualifying for public financing.

There is one critical difference between the reform community
consensus represented in these pages by Cain, Judis, Paul Starr,
and myself on the one hand, and the mix of proposals offered by
Thomas Mann and his four colleagues on the other. Mann argues
that reformers should tailor their proposals to the realities
of the current political environment (even while he admits that
environment is completely hostile to any changes in current
law); the rest of us are concerned with measuring short- and long-range
efforts against the bedrock principle that must guide all reform
efforts: Will proposed changes bring greater political equality
and democratic accountability?

The smorgasbord of ideas offered by Mann and his colleagues is
tempting, until you look deeply into what is actually proposed.
In an effort to lure reform-minded Republicans into dining with
their colleagues across their aisle, they would intensify some
of the problems of the existing system. Take their approach on
soft money. Mann tells us that his goal, which we share, is to
"eliminate" it. But what he fails to mention is that
his pitch to the 105th Congress does so at the cost of raising
hard-money contribution limits. The rest of the reform community
may have some internal disagreements on the nuances of our proposals
but on this point there is unanimity: Any legislation that increases
the clout of the wealthy few who already give the vast bulk of
all political contributions is "deform," not reform.

The same goes for the Mann group's servings on broadcast time
for candidates and tax credits for small donors. A broadcast bank
might indeed help under-financed challengers to at least air their
views. But handing out airtime to candidates without requiring
any reciprocal limits on their fund-raising or spending will simply
become one more public subsidy of candidates and the same group
of big-money interests that now dominate the electoral system.
Likewise, giving small donors a $100 tax credit without doing
anything about the overall system of special-interest funding
of campaigns just has the effect of throwing good money after
bad. Right now fewer than 20 percent of campaign contributions
are under $200; tax credits, by themselves, will not change that
imbalance much.

As for their other proposals, no one takes issue with the need
for stronger disclosure requirements and tougher action by the
FEC. Nor is there much disagreement with the need to clamp down
on abuses in spending on issue-advocacy by insisting, for example,
that so-called "independent expenditures" by parties
or political action committees be treated as campaign spending
on behalf of candidates and regulated as such.

But let's not kid ourselves. These measures—particularly if coupled
with raising contribution limits—will not produce "substantial
salutary effects" on the electoral process. Nor, more critically,
can they possibly galvanize the kind of public engagement needed
to push any changes in the laws through Congress. There may be
incremental steps along the way to our long-term goal—indeed the
Clean Money Option is only one in a series of steps that must
be taken to restore vitality to our democratic process—but we
must not fool ourselves into thinking that partial steps are more
than that. Having said that, I welcome Mann and his colleagues'
participation in the new debate that is now beginning on campaign
finance—a debate that focuses on how to stop the money chase,
eliminate the conflicts of interest created by private financing,
and encourage all citizens, regardless of their access to money,
to participate fully in the political process.


Thomas E. Mann must so like instructing others in the virtues
of compromise (which, to be honest, I enjoy doing myself) that
he has failed to notice the little contradiction in his own argument.
Mann begins by acknowledging that the "Republican leadership
in Congress has signaled clearly that its only interest is in
focusing public attention on the illegal and improper conduct
of President Clinton's re-election effort, not in restructuring
the 'American way' of financing elections." Yet he ends by
saying, "Worthwhile campaign finance reform objectives can
be achieved in the 105th Congress, if members of the reform community
stop directing their most intense fire at each other and work
instead to grasp the achievable." It will not have escaped
his notice that the Republican leadership runs the 105th Congress
and determines what it is achievable. To be sure, the previous
Congress did enact an increase in the minimum wage over the objections
of Republican leaders, but that concession helped members of their
own party get re-elected. Genuine campaign finance reform, on
the other hand, would eliminate one of their considerable advantages
in maintaining power.

Political realism does not always consist in working from the
inside. Sometimes the most realistic course is to work from the
outside in—building pressure for change by organizing popular
protest in anticipation of a time when reasonable compromises
really are achievable.

This was exactly my purpose in linking campaign finance reform
with term limits. The supporters of term limits are at a dead
end and need new allies, though they may not realize it. The supporters
of campaign finance reform need some way to peel off conservatives
from defense of the current electoral finance system. The two
groups should be talking to each other. Like the strange bedfellows
who have come together in the protest against corporate welfare,
they might be able to reach across the ideological divide. And
in so doing, they might change the political calculus of the possible.

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