Clean Elections, How To

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.



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 Group.

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 in Washington.

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.

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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" private spending.

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.



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 contributors.

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 incentives—seen by many inside the Beltway as the most possible winnable reform—does not represent a compelling, or even comprehensible, solution. No one thinks that the McCain-Feingold bill goes far enough—not even its sponsors. The bill is incomplete because the most pernicious influence of money—the checks handed over by special interests to candidates—isn'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 raised.

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 reality—namely, 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 it—including, in recent times, advocates of term limits, equal rights for women and men, and a ban on flag burning—the 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 politics—the 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 the ballot.

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.

Related Resources

Results of The Mellman Group's Study
for the Center for Responsive Politics on Campaign Finace Reform

CRP's Race-by-Race Funding Analysis
of the 1996 Congressional Elections

Buckley v. Valeo

Federal Election Commission

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