The 1996 elections for Congress and the presidency cost close to
$2 billion, and produced a turnout of just 48 percent. Some say
the late-breaking Democratic money scandals cost the Democrats
the House. There is little question that the price we all paid
was increasing disdain for the political system. We now have a
rare political opportunity as Congress reconvenes to revisit proposals
and strategies for campaign finance reform.
But beware "bipartisan" reforms. Both parties have colluded
in a system that has generated record sums of special-interest
money. A better concept is nonpartisan reform. And we know that
for truly far-reaching and clean-sweeping reform to be enacted,
the public must be fully mobilized to support it.
The record of failed reform attempts in Congress over the last
20 years offers a clear lesson: Packages of piecemeal reforms
do not generate the requisite public enthusiasm. The first task
is to frame the outcome we seek, to define where reform ultimately
has to take us, and to find a solution that directly confronts
the real problems. And the real problems are too much money; too
much time spent raising money; the money's influence over lawmakers
by the special interests who contribute it; and the reality that
good people don't have a fair chance of winning without the money.
NO MORE DIRTY LAUNDERING
American voters today are more supportive of dramatic campaign
finance reform than at any time since Watergate. This conclusion
is drawn from a comprehensive research study undertaken for the
Center for Responsive Politics in July and August by the Mellman
Citizens believe that Washington's failure to address their problems
is the direct result of politicians accepting too much campaign
money from special interests and bowing to the agendas of those
who write the checks. They believe that special interests have
more control over Washington's agenda than the President and Congress
combined. Further, they believe that the campaign finance system
today discourages good people from running and makes it too difficult
for the few who do.
Campaign finance reform has not yet become citizens' top priority.
But when citizens are asked what they don't like about the political
system, their overwhelming response is "the money."
The citizens in the Mellman-Center for Responsive Politics' focus
groups and national poll overwhelming embraced, over other options,
a proposal in which candidates would no longer raise money from
private sources. Instead, each candidate would receive a set amount
of money from a publicly financed election fund and spending would
be limited to that amount. This approach, modeled on a Maine ballot
initiative that was successful in November, is consistent with
the Buckley v. Valeo decision of the Supreme Court. Fully
65 percent supported such a proposal after hearing all the arguments
for and against it. Voters saw this Clean Money Option as the
best step toward solving the problem of special-interest influence
Other recent research efforts have corroborated this public sentiment.
The Harwood Group and the League of Women Voters conducted a series
of lengthy discussions with citizens throughout 1996 that concluded
that voluntary full public financing was the best option. Brad
Bannon's 1994 polls in five states found majorities in each who
backed the same proposal. A Gallup poll conducted in late October
1996 found that 65 percent of the respondents favored full public
financing, with only 27 percent dissenting. The Gallup Organization
has asked its question repeatedly since 1974 and its current findings
reflect the highest level of support for public funding since
the aftermath of Watergate. In none of the Gallup surveys since
1974 has support for public financing dipped below 50 percent.
THE "CLEAN MONEY OPTION"
The Working Group on Electoral Democracy, an informal association
of longtime public policy activists from various parts of the
country, developed the Clean Money model reform for congressional
elections several years ago. It has been adapted by state-based
campaign finance reform activists and was the basis of a proposal
for state elections that was enacted by Maine voters, by a margin
of 56 to 44. Under this system, once candidates pass a carefully
determined qualification threshold, they receive a fixed amount
of public money for their campaigns. (For example, candidates
for the U.S. House of Representatives would receive $150,000 for
the primary and $200,000 for the general election, with additional
money available to protect against excessive private spending.)
This would eliminate the need to raise private money, and thus
eliminate the inherent conflicts of interest that arise when the
campaigns of public servants are privately financed.
Public financing is made available for a candidate's entire campaign,
beginning with the primary and running through the general election
and any runoff. To be eligible for this "Clean Money,"
congressional candidates would be required to raise a relatively
large number of five-dollar "qualifying contributions"
from within his or her election district. Eligibility would also
be conditioned on candidates' agreement not to raise or spend
any private money whatsoever during the primary and general election
periods, and thus to limit their spending to the fixed amount
of public funding they receive.
Prior to the beginning of the primary, however, prospective congressional
candidates would be allowed to raise a limited amount of private,
"seed" money, with a $100 per donor limitation on contributions.
This money could only be spent on the start-up costs of qualifying
for public financing, and couldn't be spent during the primary
or general election periods. All the candidates running for the
same office who met the qualifying test would receive equal amounts
of public financing.
This system would be strictly voluntary, to conform to the Supreme
Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, which allows candidates
to spend unlimited amounts of their own money. Candidates would
be free to reject the Clean Money Option and raise private money,
or to use their own money to finance their campaigns. However,
judging from the participation rate in the system of partial public
financing for presidential elections, the great majority of congressional
candidates capable of financing their own campaigns are very likely
to choose public financing instead, once such an option is in
place. Of the dozens of Republican and Democratic candidates who
have run for president since 1976, only John Connolly (in 1976),
Ross Perot (in 1992), and Steve Forbes (in 1996) have rejected
public financing in favor of spending (or raising, in the case
of Connolly ) their own money. Of these three candidates, Connolly
and Forbes lost badly in the primaries, and Perot, who lost in
the general election in 1992, decided to accept public financing
in 1996. The participation rates are likely to be even higher
for a system that offers full public financing.
As part of a Clean Money Option, soft money of the kind that now
undermines the integrity of the presidential system (because it
is used not for generic "party-building" purposes as
officially intended, but to support particular federal candidates)
would be banned. In addition, with a Clean Money Option, publicly
financed candidates who are outspent by privately financed opponents
receive additional, "equalizing" funds. In the version
just approved by Maine voters, the additional funding is capped
at 100 percent of the original amount received, but a higher cap
could be set for federal elections. This cap protects the Clean
Money fund from being depleted by "the sky's the limit"
The problem of independent expenditures is addressed in a similar
way. Candidates targeted by such expenditures, as determined by
the Federal Election Commission, would receive the same kind of
equalizing funds. This, of course, does not mean the disappearance
of independent expenditures, including those the political parties
are now making on behalf of their own candidates thanks to a new
loophole recently opened up by the Supreme Court in Colorado
Republican Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission.
(In this controversial June 1996 decision, the Court declared
that political parties should have the same right to make independent
expenditures that individuals and other political committees enjoy,
so long as there is no coordination or communication between the
parties and their candidates.) However, there is a high likelihood
that the equalizing provision will reduce these expenditures because
opponents will be able to match them with public money. Also,
in a Clean Money Option environment in which all candidates have
the opportunity to "just say no" to special-interest
money and receive full and equal amounts of public financing,
there is likely to be strong voter disapproval of independent
spenders who try to circumvent the new system and also disapproval
of the candidates they are trying to help.
FAILURE OF OTHER APPROACHES
Several alternative approaches have lately been proposed, ranging
from a constitutional amendment overturning Buckley v. Valeo
to a variety of piecemeal strategies. But there is no viable alternative
that would bring down the cost of campaigns, free candidates and
elected officials from the incessant "money chase,"
and, most importantly, end their dependency on special-interest
Establishing low limits on individual contributions has popular
appeal and has been approved by voters for state elections in
several states. This approach commendably pushes wealthy donors
away from candidates, but it forces candidates to spend even more
time raising money. In the two locales where it has actually been
tried, Washington, D.C., and Oregon, it appears to have led to
an explosion of independent expenditures and other methods of
end-running the system. Federal courts have subsequently declared
unconstitutional both the Washington, D.C., law and a similar
measure that was passed by ballot initiative, but never put into
effect, in Missouri.
Attempts to provide only partial public financing have not been
very successful either. Twenty-three states have some form of
partial public financing on their books, but in practice only
nine states are able to provide even limited funds to statewide
candidates, and only three states provide partial public financing
to legislative candidates. The partial public financing system
for presidential races that provides matching public financing
in the primary and purportedly full public financing for the general
election is equally ineffective. Of the approximate $800 million
spent on this year's presidential contest, more than $225 million
came from "soft" (unregulated) contributions by large
private donors, including some possibly illegal sources.
Unfortunately, the McCain-Feingold bill, which went down to resounding
bipartisan defeat earlier this year and which its co-sponsors
stand ready to reintroduce in January, is another such package.
Its complex combination of limits and incentivesseen by many
inside the Beltway as the most possible winnable reformdoes not
represent a compelling, or even comprehensible, solution. No one
thinks that the McCain-Feingold bill goes far enoughnot even
its sponsors. The bill is incomplete because the most pernicious
influence of moneythe checks handed over by special interests
to candidatesisn't dealt with comprehensively.
Although McCain-Feingold provides discounted television
advertising and mail rates to candidates who agree to various
voluntary limits, it offers no public financing and thus perpetuates
a system in which candidates will spend lots of time raising money
from the same private interests as before. In addition, the voluntary
limits on overall campaign spending and the percentage of money
candidates can receive from PACs and out-of-state contributors
are set at above the average amounts currently being spent or
The McCain-Feingold provisions for limiting soft money and tightening
the definition of "independent expenditures" are important
and worthy. But by focusing primarily on restricting PAC and out-of-state
contributions, the bill ignores a basic realitynamely, that in
a society in which wealth is so unevenly distributed, any campaign
finance system that requires candidates to raise large sums of
private money is bound to be rife with conflicts of interest and
unfair to people without access to wealth.
Buckley v. Valeo makes reform difficult, by forbidding
mandatory limits on overall campaign spending and by granting
constitutional "free speech" protections to contributions
by wealthy candidates to their own campaigns, as well as independent
expenditures. It is for this reason that former Senator Bill Bradley
and many others see the need for a constitutional amendment to
overturn Buckley. But the road to achieving a constitutional
amendment is long and arduous, and for most who have tried to
go down itincluding, in recent times, advocates of term limits,
equal rights for women and men, and a ban on flag burningthe
result has been failure. Moreover, an amendment that truly limited
all independent expenditures could well threaten legitimate First
Amendment rights, such as the right of a newspaper to endorse
or oppose a candidate or the rights of citizen groups to run paid
advertisements on public issues.
The Clean Money Option provides the best solution to the core
problem of money in politicsthe influence of private money given
directly to candidates for public office. Not only is it constitutional
(because it is voluntary), but it is also both comprehensive and
comprehensible, enjoying a combination of sweeping effect and
simplicity of design that is rare in public policy debates. Limiting
campaign spending, reducing government favors to special interests,
and leveling the playing field to give good candidates a fair
chance of being elected are the goals that drive public support
for this proposal.
It is highly improbable that the Clean Money Option would pass
Congress today. But within two to four years, conventional wisdom
and the political environment can be changed. The Clean Money
Option is increasingly the focus of reform efforts outside of
Washington. Maine's success will make that state a beacon for
others. Nearly a dozen states have some kind of a full public
financing proposal under legislative consideration or headed for
Editorial endorsements of the Clean Money Option and the notion
that campaign finance reform has to be broad and deep are appearing
in the national and regional press, including USA Today,
the Boston Globe, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune,
the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Hartford Courant,
the Rutland [Vermont] Herald, and the Portland
[Maine] Press Herald. The Boston Globe editorialized
that the "Maine plan" ought to be considered a "blueprint"
for national reform.
Other public policy debates illustrate what can be achieved. The
recent minimum-wage increase serves as a striking example of what
can happen when strong public support is effectively engaged in
a high-profile policy debate. A year ago, the polling numbers
on increasing the minimum wage were quite similar to those today
on the Clean Money Option, yet conventional wisdom suggested that
Congress, and particularly Republicans, would never vote for it.
However, once the President, Democrats in the Congress, moderate
Republicans, and outside advocates raised their voices in support
of an increase, the latent public support became a potent political
weapon. The minimum-wage increase passed, in part, because it
was a symbol by which citizens judged Congress's commitment to
working families most in need. In this same way, the Clean Money
Option can pass if reformers make it a test of Congress's integrity
and willingness to divorce itself from special-interest money.
No solution closes all channels of monied influence, but the Clean
Money Option blocks the most destructive path, that of large sums
of money changing hands directly between special interests and
candidates. Piecemeal steps leave this channel open, ultimately
reducing reform to little more than minor legislative obstacles
for special interests to avoid.
Results of The Mellman Group's Study
for the Center for Responsive Politics on Campaign Finace Reform
CRP's Race-by-Race Funding Analysis
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