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 so?

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 achievable.



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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