This special double issue of the Prospect focuses on money and politics. It is part of a continuing series on this set of topics, which is central to the project of reviving progressive politics.
In this century, there have been successive waves of reform, beginning with the Progressive Era, which sought to constrain the influence of big money on democratic deliberation. The first of these, in 1907, actually enacted a law that banned corporate contributions to political campaigns. But at roughly 20-year intervals, special-interest money has found a way to breach the barriers. Then a new wave of scandals engenders a new set of reforms, and the cycle begins anew.
The stakes are enormous, not just for small-d democratic politics in general but for progressive politics in particular. A dependence on big money pushes the whole political agenda to the right and depresses participation by the one proven antidote--ordinary voters.
The most recent reforms, enacted in the wake of Watergate, have been gutted or rendered irrelevant by court decisions and creative evasion. Soft (unregulated) money and issue advertising by supposedly independent groups have effectively eliminated all constraints on fundraising. Each election cycle, the expenditures per race get higher, while faith in our politicians falls lower. Every recent session of Congress has seen the proposed campaign finance reform legislation of John McCain and Russell Feingold rise, crest, and fall, with the bill getting weaker in each successive (failed) iteration.
Lately, however, there has been some encouraging news--passage of state clean-election laws providing public financing for candidates who qualify, the enactment of a modest federal law to close one egregious loophole that allowed nonprofits to be stealth PACs, the near-miss reform candidacies of John McCain and Bill Bradley, and the apparently sincere embrace by Al Gore of real reform. Even so, both parties are more heavily dependent today on moneyed elites than ever. Countless worthy would-be candidates are driven out of politics by the financial and moral costs of perpetual fundraising. Whole sets of issues are marginalized from political discourse because their champions are financially marginal candidates. Voting participation keeps dropping.
As money becomes the currency of politics, the agenda of the well-to-do crowds out the agenda of ordinary people. Entire issues that might excite voters are excluded from debate. Wealthy donors give to conservatives out of a natural affinity; they give to liberals in the hope of making them less liberal. This dynamic not only gives conservative candidates a financial advantage in elections, but it whipsaws liberals. The need to raise money often blurs political messages and distances progressive candidates from their constituencies--the very people who rely on democratic politics because they don't have a lot of money.
Beyond the ideological and partisan implications, the never-ending arms race of money damages both parties and puts politicians up for auction, eroding not just the connection between the political class and the citizenry, but our faith in the political system.
Can this vicious circle be broken? Can we take back democratic politics from donors and fundraisers? We began by posing the question to four veterans, each with long experience on different fronts in the battle for political reform. Campaign finance reformers must feel like Sisyphus, doomed to push a rock up a hill for all eternity, only to have it roll back down. The editors of TAP invited the four to reconsider whether we are fighting the right battle.
Are there avenues of reform still untraveled? Do our efforts at fixing a strictly construed campaign finance problem come at the expense of our fixing what is really a much broader problem of voter engagement? What is the connection between process reform and substantive progressive politics? Can Buckley v. Valeo be overturned? Should it be? And what sort of regime that would pass constitutional muster should replace it?
See the Campaign Finance Special Section!
Ellen S. Miller
The editors ask, "Wasn't it ever thus?" Yes, money over the years has carved deeper and deeper channels into politics, and yes, all the reforms of the twentieth century have failed to stanch the flow. And yes, the problem of money in politics is getting worse: There has never been such a gulf between elected representatives and the people they are supposed to serve, never such brazenness in the raising and giving of campaign money, or in the rape of the U.S. Treasury by corporate America. The piecemeal nature of campaign finance reform has contributed to this problem.
Campaign finance lawbending today is an extreme sport. A whole industry has sprung up whose business is advising candidates and parties on how to slither around rules. Politicians caught in dubious sit-uations--collecting large sums from an industry and then voting tax favors, for example--loudly proclaim that everything they have done is absolutely legal. They are technically right; often what they do is legal. This is precisely what's wrong with the system.
But it need not be "always thus." Clean Money reform can break the mold. Clean Money is law in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Voters in two more states, Oregon and Missouri, will vote on Clean Money initiatives this November. And activists in 40 states have joined the Clean Money march, working to enact reform.
Under Clean Money reform, candidates who voluntarily agree to limit their spending and to reject campaign contributions from private sources can qualify for full public financing for their campaigns. Primaries are covered as well as general elections, opening up the possibility for real competition within the parties, which is a critical element in reducing the dominance of money in elections. Additional funds are also made available, up to a limit, if a Clean Money candidate is outspent by a privately financed opponent.
There are not a lot of reform proposals that comport with the Supreme Court dictum that money is speech, but the Clean Money approach has been approved by the courts on all counts, most recently in February 2000 at the appellate level.
Unlike reforms based on contribution limits, or curtailing or disclosing a certain type of campaign contributions or spending, Clean Money reform is a comprehensive solution that goes directly to the core problem in the current system. It eliminates the link between special-interest contributions and the candidate. The public response is viscerally supportive. From the politicians' perspective, Clean Money also has appeal. They are freed from cold-calling donors and attending endless fundraising functions. And when they cast a vote on a tough public-policy issue, they can be questioned on the substance of that decision, not on whether they voted that way because they got money from donor X.
"Democracy is like a horizon, always approaching," says Vaclav Havel. We have to start with campaign finance reform--but not stop there--if our goal is a re-engaged citizenry. We won't engage citizens in the democratic process or in the polls until we fix the campaign finance system.
Ernesto Cortés, Jr.
Fixing campaign finance can help stem the effect of the political golden rule: "He who has the gold makes the rules." However, real politics is not raising money and paying for ads. It is about engaging in public discourse and collective action guided by that discourse.
The current state of campaign finance is not just its own blight on democracy, but evidence of the deterioration of politics. So the real question is not only how to control the role of money, but how to recreate the vibrant, deliberative communities so sought by Jefferson, Tocqueville, Emerson, and Dewey. We need, therefore, a strategy to create an institutional framework whereby "ordinary" people develop the deliberative skills to do real politics.
Imagine, for example, if in 75 congressional districts, every candidate attended a meeting with 2,500 organized, registered voters, each committed to turning out at least 10 of their neighbors on election day. Suppose, at those public meetings, each candidate were asked to make a specific commitment to support an agenda that included, say, increasing the minimum wage, job training for living-wage jobs, health care for the 45 million individuals without health insurance, and universal preschool.
Imagine, further, that this constituency of voters was developed through a process that knitted back together our attenuated layer of civic organizations--our neighborhood groups, congregations, and public school communities. Suppose individuals, through a process of conversation, deliberation, and debate, forged a consensus agenda. It is through such face-to-face disagreement, argument, confrontation, and negotiation among constituents, and between a constituency and its candidate, that active citizenship and political efficacy can be realized.
The development of such "new" politics requires civic institutions to teach people that politics is not about campaign contributions, but about engaging one another to act collectively upon an agenda shared by many working families. Their job is to teach people how to form relationships with leaders and enlist political candidates to act on behalf of working families, not on behalf of those paying the campaign bills.
Through teaching, mentoring, and building organized constituencies, our civic institutions can help rehabilitate our political and civic culture. This strategy of civic institutions developing the capacities of ordinary people to advocate for their families and their communities is already emerging for hundreds of thousands of families living in Chicago, Boston, New York City, Baltimore, and virtually every major city in California, Arizona, and Texas, where grass-roots organizations have real life.
Recently, BusinessWeek magazine grudgingly conceded that local living-wage ordinances had done substantially more good than harm. Every elite interest group and most conventional politicians had opposed such laws. In every case, they were the work of grass-roots groups of ordinary citizens, organized to address practical economic needs.
Campaign finance reform is a step toward stemming the influence of wealth in congressional decisions. However substantive, political reform must begin with civic institutions engaging ordinary people in broad-based constituencies for change, shifting their role in American politics from spectators to full participants.
Cass R. Sunstein
A free society should be able to control arms races that take the form of more--and more desperate--efforts to raise money simply to compete in campaigns. Large and systematic economic inequalities (acceptable in a free society) must not be turned into large and systematic political inequalities (unacceptable in a free society).
Buckley v. Valeo is one of the most castigated decisions of the past 40 years, and rightly so, because it forbids Congress from doing much to control direct expenditures on campaigns and issues. (But Buckley does allow Congress considerable room to control contributions to campaigns.) It is most unlikely that Buckley will be overruled in the near future. But the Court could well chip away at it without overruling it.
Any regulation of campaign expenditures creates a serious risk of unintended bad consequences. Limits on contributions to campaigns, for example, have helped to fuel the rise of political action committees, which can make expenditures on behalf of candidates and issues. Any restrictions in the future are all too likely to spur creative responses, producing risks of their own.
Some of the pressure on candidates can be relieved if television networks provide free airtime to candidates for office. Those interested in campaign finance reform should press for far greater assumption of civic responsibility by television networks. This is so especially because of the risk that, for many Americans, the Internet engenders excessive "customization"--a system in which people create a kind of "daily me" and do not encounter topics and ideas that they have not chosen in advance.
Some of the most promising current initiatives, entirely consistent with Buckley, tell candidates that they will receive public funds, but only on certain conditions--most notably that they will accept little, or nothing, from private contributors. At least part of a sensible package for the future would take the form of "conditional grants"--moving in the direction of public financing, not through flat bans, but through creating incentives toward a system of that kind via publicly provided "carrots." We need a fuller exploration of the virtues and limits of this approach.
The fight for campaign finance reform needs to be in the context of a broader fight to rescue and revitalize our democratic process. Getting big money out of politics (which means getting public money in) is a necessary but not sufficient strategy for winning a decent democratic future.
Interested money is certainly finding ever-more ingenious ways into campaigns, in larger and larger amounts; simply building more barriers cannot work. But it is also true that the momentum is growing for getting our politics off the money treadmill by fighting for a public financing system. While the main message nationally is still gridlock and feeding frenzy, it is significant that Al Gore has called for public financing of congressional races, and not only for passage of the McCain-Feingold bill.
In the states, support is growing in public consciousness, among candidates, in legislative battles, and even in the courts. Maine's law was ringingly upheld by a federal district court and reaffirmed by the First Circuit Court of Appeals. Candidates are using the law in new kinds of campaigns in Maine as well as Vermont and Arizona. In striking down part of Vermont's law, which is a direct challenge to Buckley, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions practically pleaded with the Supreme Court to review the issue of spending limits from Buckley in light of the new and stark realities. While Connecticut's Republican governor vetoed a strong public financing bill this year, passing it through both legislative houses was a major step forward. Voters in Oregon and Missouri will consider ballot initiatives this November. And more states will see legislative fights next year.
Even so, campaign finance reform and demo-cracy reform are necessary complements. Bringing people into the process is as essential as getting money out. We have to continue to remove the barriers that still exist to participation. For example, in the African-American and Latino communities, and for many young people, exclusion from the political process based on a felony conviction is a growing issue of community disenfranchisement. As the Sentencing Project has documented, over four million people are currently so barred from voting, in many states for life. We need to take this barrier down.
If we're serious about bringing young people into the process, we need to make politics relevant to them day in and day out. A recent study by the National Association of Secretaries of State showed that young people are not disengaged from community life at all; they just don't see what voting has to do with it. Getting into the schools with civic education and community service programs, having elected officials and candidates get out and talk to young people, on their terms, and putting major emphasis on registering kids in high schools are all key. Getting money out of politics just isn't enough.
Finally, process reform and substantive progressive policies are not alternatives; they reinforce each other. Battles over expanding health care access, coalitions to fight poverty and turn welfare reform into an effort for true self-sufficiency, fights for literacy and early childhood education--all of these energize mass politics. Money-and-politics reformers need to involve themselves in these issues fully and bring the issue of campaign finance reform to these fights, or the campaign finance issue will remain the preserve of good-government advocates only.
Restoring a functioning democracy isn't easy. But if we approach it holistically, taking together the issues most fundamental to different parts of our democratic community, victories will come, leading to more unity, more participation, and more victories in the future.
Ellen S. Miller
Bravo to all the round table participants on their creative ideas of ways to engage the public in political life. In the 1996 presidential elections, only one out of two people of voting age bothered to vote. What illustrates the crisis in our democracy better than that?
The decision not to participate, however, is a logical one. Some three-fourths of all voters and political donors believe that half the time or more, members of Congress decide what to do based on what their contributors want rather than what they really believe, according to a survey of generous campaign contributors and voters by the Campaign for America's Future (CAF), published in August 2000 in The Nation. More than half of voters believe that "special interests and lobbyists" have the "most control over what goes on in Washington, D.C." People decide not to vote because they believe they don't matter.
These are not mere perceptions; they are rooted in reality. The same survey shows that 54 percent of large donors have personally spoken to a federal elected official in the past year, but only 9 percent of voters have. A close study of campaign contribution data and congressional action--and inaction--further proves these points. Those who pay the piper call the tune ... over and over and over again.
Voters' cynicism is well-placed. If you were to ask a person on the street what he or she considered to be the biggest problem the nation faces, it would not be reform of the bankruptcy system, or banking deregulation, or securities litigation reform, yet Congress has devoted endless hours of debate to these issues in recent years and, in fact, has passed several laws. The fact that the financial industry is consistently the most generous source of campaign contributions election after election, already giving more than $136 million to candidates and parties this election cycle, explains a great deal about congressional agenda-setting.
Meanwhile, when it comes to the issues voters do care about--financial security, health care coverage, education, a clean environment--Congress pays little attention or considers only the most piecemeal solutions. A hike in the minimum wage is unheard of unless accompanied by a long list of tax breaks for big business donors. Instead of discussing how to provide health insurance to all those who lack it, Congress has been debating a much narrower question for those who already have care: patients' rights at HMOs. Free trade is the mantra for both Bush and Gore and the majority in Congress, while only one-quarter of voters believe that free trade creates more jobs than it costs, according to CAF's poll. In contrast, 55 percent of large political donors believe free trade creates jobs.
Until we reform the campaign finance system, how can we tell voters, truthfully, that their vote counts as much as anybody else's, including a $250,000-plus donor to the Republican or Democratic party? We run the risk of creating a new group of cynics if we say they count just as much and then they find out, in the rough and tumble of politics, that they don't, not really. That said, campaign finance reform is not a panacea for all that ails our body politic. It is simply a step, and a modest one at that. The rest is the difficult but also crucial work of organizing, engaging our citizenry, and encouraging people to be active in our democracy, just as Miles Rapoport and Ernesto Cortés describe.
Ernesto Cortés, Jr.
Regardless of whether, as Cass Sunstein writes, we focus on alternative strategies that are not predicated on the reversal of Buckley v. Valeo, and/or possibly take our direction from the state-level reforms already in place as suggested by Ellen Miller and Miles Rapoport, it is clearly in our interest as a democracy to address the issue of money in politics.
However, as I think about campaign finance reform, I am reminded that Franklin D. Roosevelt is reported to have said something like, "Okay, you've convinced me... . Now go out there and organize and create a constituency to make me do it." Unfortunately, it seems that many progressives are caught up in the convincing when what we also need is to build the constituency or, as Ed Chambers, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) director says, "power before program."
I think it is significant that each of us acknowledges that campaign finance reform alone is not sufficient to revitalize our polis and re-engage one another in the true business of citizenship. I suspect that it is not just the campaign finance system that has caused our democratic culture to deteriorate. Much of the blame lies in the absence of institutions that teach people the deliberative skills and habits of thought necessary for real politics. In fact, I would encourage us to consider the question of whether the decline of these civic institutions has in fact created the context in which money is able to so dominate our political process.
It is clear, however, that regardless of how we reached this point, action must be taken to reverse the decline of political life in the United States. It is ironic that the media bemoans the fact that politics and government are reviled as corrupt, disconnected institutions that have little relevance for the lives of families and neighborhoods, when television is actually one of the most important causes of the transformation of our political campaigns into marketing strategies requiring huge infusions of private financing.
In spite of how truthful their cries may be--that people are disenchanted; they don't vote; they don't want to pay taxes; they think less government is better government--it is equally truthful that in places where the broad-based IAF organizations are fully operative, organized people are voting in increasing numbers. In places like Chicago, Boston, New York City, Baltimore, the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, San Antonio, Austin, and virtually all the major cities in Texas and Arizona, organized citizens have voted for candidates who support their agendas of issues, agendas carefully negotiated and developed out of house meetings, individual meetings, neighborhood walks, and research actions. They have voted for tax increases and bond elections to provide funding for the programs and infrastructure improvements called for by these agendas.
Now sustaining these efforts and their successes requires ongoing face-to-face, grass-roots organizing efforts. Unfortunately, most candidates, political parties, and even liberals regard these kinds of strategies as anachronistic or worse: They don't suit the perceived interests of the Internet generation.
This is not to say that campaign finance reform would not enhance these efforts. I celebrate the points my colleagues have made, but I believe we must give equal time to rebuilding the democratic institutions that create the deliberative capacities so necessary for the practice of real politics.
Karl Llewellyn, the late law professor, liked to say, "Technique without morals is a menace; but morals without technique is a mess." One of my reactions to the various remarks is that campaign finance reform needs to be highly practical and to avoid mess. What reforms will actually work? What reforms will be upheld by the Supreme Court? What reforms will create unintended bad consequences?
Buckley v. Valeo is poorly understood. The Court did not strike down campaign finance reform as a whole. Instead, the Court suggested three different points. First, Congress could not limit direct expenditures on campaigns, by candidates for themselves (consider the case of Ross Perot) or by people who are spending money on their own (thus, I could spend limitless money to fund my own, independent, nonaffiliated commercial for John McCain).
Second, the Court said that Congress could limit contributions to campaigns, to reduce the risk and reality of corruption. Third, the Court indicated that public financing is entirely legitimate so long as it is voluntary and does not forbid private expenditures. A system in which candidates were asked not to accept private money and not to spend money on themselves, in return for public financing, would be entirely legitimate.
The rise of political action committees is an unintended consequence of Buckley itself. Under Buckley, PACs seem permitted to spend unlimited money "on their own." But the Court has disputed this open-ended reading of Buckley; its members have been sharply divided about whether and how legislatures can reduce the influence of PACs. Some of the justices have shown a willingness to chip away a bit at Buckley here and to allow legislatures to act in this domain.
Without a change in the composition of the Court, the three points outlined above will likely remain the law. Still, Congress retains considerable power. And where the issue is not directly controlled by Buckley--as in the case of PACs--some legislation might well be upheld. In the long run, a sustained public attack on Buckley, accompanied by well-considered legislation that attacks its premises, might lead the Court to overrule the case. Don't bet on it, but stranger things have happened.
In these circumstances, I am especially enthusiastic about Ellen Miller's emphasis on Clean Money campaign reform. She is right to say that this approach is consistent with Buckley v. Valeo and unlikely to create the unintended consequences associated with partial remedies. Recall that limitations on contributions helped spur the rise of PACs, and that limitations on hard money are responsible for the rise in soft money.
Part of what would probably make sense, in the short run, is to combine (a) public financing à la Clean Money reform (available for those who renounce expenditures or private contributions), alongside (b) efforts to control the power of PACs, (c) limits on contributions of the sort upheld in Buckley, and (d) compulsory disclosure of all financial matters, including the names of private donors and the amounts they have given.
One cautionary note: Campaign finance reform is important, but too much attention is being paid to nonscandal scandals and to sensationalistic, false claims about how officials are in the "pocket" of special interests. Consider George W. Bush's truly disgraceful decision to run campaign advertisements about Gore's Buddhist temple visit. Bush himself receives a huge amount of corporate money, but the best guess is that he gets the money because he agrees with the donors, not the other way around. While American government needs campaign finance reform, the level of actual corruption is happily low. I agree with Ernesto Cortés and Miles Rapoport insofar as they see campaign finance reform as part of a more general project of improving democracy. The real issue is what government policies would do for, or to, people's lives. Too much emphasis on who is allegedly beholden to whom can make it harder to address people's genuine disagreements about that issue.
My colleagues' comments lead me to three further observations on the nature of real campaign finance reform, the possibility of judicial progress, and the relationship of campaign finance reform to grass-roots community and issue organizing.
First, all of us are clear that fundamental reform requires finding an alternate way for campaigns to function, not just plugging ingenious routes to private cash. We can't just try to throw more dams at a river cascading downhill. Ellen, Cass, and I argue for public financing, coupled with real limits on what candidates can spend and with effective limits on the potentially overwhelming influence of noncandidate expenditures. This approach has won in several states, and the view is gaining ground in the reform community. None of us believes that half-steps will work. I thank Cass for reminding us of the need for meaningful candidate access to the media, one of the key drivers of the ever-increasing costs of campaigning.
Second, Buckley is really shorthand for a whole set of judicial decisions that have consistently widened campaign spending loopholes in the name of protecting political speech and the role of political parties. I do believe that judicial opinion is shifting significantly, trailing reality but catching up. In the recent Maine and Arizona cases, the fundamental principles of providing public financing, and of giving matching funds for independent expenditures, have been upheld. The judge in the Vermont case in August said mandatory spending limits were unconstitutional under Buckley, a decision that led Governor Howard Dean to withdraw from the public financing system lest he be wildly outspent. But the judge also ruled that some limits on parties' expenditures would be reasonable and stated the need for a real review of Buckley.
The best challenge to Buckley will be from a case that provides solid levels of financing to candidates and matching funds for independent expenditures, and sets strict and effective limits on what nonparticipating candidates can spend. All in all, the judicial situation is certainly fluid enough to go at it rather than see the situation as hopeless. It is, of course, ironic that the possibilities of getting Buckley overturned will best come from a court appointed by President Gore, who will win in a campaign in which both sides are more awash in soft money and indirect expenditures than ever. But this is only a stronger argument for getting the law changed once and for all, not one for one-sided abstinence.
Lastly, Ernesto agrees on the corruption money brings to our politics, but the thrust of his argument is that powerful citizen organizing is the key to revitalizing democracy, more important than campaign finance reform itself. I heartily agree that real organizing work is fundamental to the health of our democracy. The examples he cites of the IAF's broad-based institutional organizing are impressive indeed. So, too, are the consistent organizing efforts of groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), USAction, and a host of neighborhood-based organizing efforts and statewide issue organizations and electoral coalitions. Labor's renewed commitment to organizing is an enormous plus. The victories these groups have won, the changes they have brought to people's lives, and the changes they have made in the relations of power at the local and state levels are legion and vastly underrecognized.
But I also have to say, as a former legislator as well as an organizer, that the challenge of leveling the playing field for citizens is huge. At the Connecticut legislature, I was always delighted (not all of my colleagues were) when the demonstrations, vigils, tent cities, and lobby days of citizen, labor, and poverty activists arrived and got in our faces. But the next day and the day after, what was left were the lobbyists, overwhelmingly businessoriented, largely defining the parameters of acceptable outcomes. And when it comes time to hold campaign fundraisers, even the best of legislators pull out the lobbyist list and start addressing envelopes. Citizen organizing has to fight on key community and economic issues, but it must also pay attention to the rules of the game itself. Changing our campaign finance system needs to be a part of the agenda of every citizen organization that seriously wants to win in the long run. ¤
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