Who Killed Campaign Finance Reform? (and How To Revive It)

On October 17, The American Prospect cosponsored a conference on campaign finance reform at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Only weeks earlier, reform legislation had died in Congress. Participants in the conference included representatives of public interest organizations and both Democrats and Republicans; the conference received financial support from the Arca, Schumann, and Joyce Foundations, and Alida R. Messinger. Here we present the views of Joan Claybrook and those of Ellen Miller; forthcoming issues will carry additional articles.

Press the Congress

Joan Claybrook


With the election of Bill Clinton and a large contingent of new members of Congress who ran on a government "reform" platform, there was great hope that the first significant reforms of the campaign finance system in 20 years would pass. But instead of a White House signing ceremony, we see hopes for this year dashed and spending in the 1994 elections soaring to new heights. What happened, and what can we expect next year?


The answer to the first question has many layers. On a purely technical level, the bill succumbed in the final days of Congress to a filibuster led by Republican opponents of the legislation. Both the House and Senate passed comprehensive campaign finance reform measures in 1993, leaving plenty of time to obtain passage of a final bill. The House and Senate bills contained voluntary campaign spending limits; partial public funding or very low television rates for candidates agreeing to the limits; an end to the "soft money" loophole; and much more. The Republicans disliked campaign reform, but more than that, toward the end of Congress, defeating it became a key part of their electoral strategy to deny the Democratic Congress and President Clinton any significant legislative accomplishments and block the president's top agenda items at all costs.


The Democrats made it possible for this tactic to work. The bill's chances were damaged significantly by the inability of the House and Senate Democratic leaders to reach a compromise between the House and Senate bills until the last two weeks before the election recess. The key dispute focused on political action committee (PAC) limits. The Senate bill eliminated PACs. It was clear for months that the final bill, at the very least, had to reduce the current limits in order to have a chance of beating a Senate filibuster. A deal was finally struck with the election looming, but there was no time to mobilize public sentiment for reform in order to overcome the filibuster.


The White House also bears significant responsibility for the failure of reform. The Clinton administration, for all of its pro-reform rhetoric, simply did not put much muscle into moving the legislation. Clinton's failure to push early and often for campaign finance reform made it a sitting duck for recalcitrant House Democrats and obstructionist Senate Republicans.


Finally, a significant factor was the abandonment or opposition of some citizen groups and, at their urging, many funders. Though containing breakthroughs such as partial public funding and a ban on soft money, the bill was criticized by groups that believe that total or nearly total public funding of federal elections is the only meaningful reform. Their desertion undercut the legislative and grassroots effort to harness the public's deep resentment and demand for reform.


Unfortunately, it is a fantasy to hope that any legislature will miraculously adopt full public funding without any preceding incremental change. The public's voting behavior focuses on taxes, health care, and crime, not public funding of elections. Ironically, efforts to address these pressing issues will be subject to the same stranglehold of special interest money next year as it was in the 103rd Congress, in part because some groups let the perfect be the enemy of the good.


With the defeat of this legislation, reformers lost a golden opportunity to get a system with partial public funding that almost every congressional candidate would have opted to receive, thus limiting future attacks on the principle of public funding. Success of even partial reform in this Congress also would have boosted efforts at the state level.


Nevertheless, we cannot draw back from pressing the Congress to adopt reforms. That would only reward the perfidy of the opponents of reform. And it is destructive to suggest that federal legislative efforts are fruitless and we should pursue only long-term grassroots activity aimed at creating a near revolution on this issue. We must move on a number of tracks with a targeted state-level grassroots organizing strategy (to avoid pouring money into a large black hole), and a federal legislative package that Congress cannot ignore.


To keep pressure on Congress, we must reintroduce a comprehensive campaign finance reform package similar to the bills passed by the House and Senate. We should also push for a stand-alone bill addressing some of the worst abuses under current law--soft money, "bundling" of individual contributions by interest groups and lobbyists, "member" PACs that circumvent even the modest rules in place today, conversion of campaign money for personal use, and the failure of candidates to disclose the occupations of large contributors.



To make reform happen, reformers must leave their egos at the door and regroup. We must organize a sympathetic and frustrated public and continue to educate the media. President Clinton should fight as hard for government reform on behalf of the people as he does for trade agreements on behalf of corporations. The bad news is that party politics hurt reform this year. The good and more powerful news is that citizens across America are demanding reform more than ever. We need only to get smarter about harnessing their energy.


Take the Issue Beyond the Beltway

Ellen S. Miller


Ask someone why campaign finance reform failed in the 103rd Congress and the answer includes the usual finger-pointing at House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and the president. This is a fair but incomplete assessment.


Subscribe to The American Prospect

Campaign reform remains elusive because we have failed to engage the public fully on the fundamental issue: whether election campaigns should be privately financed in the first place. We have set our sights too low and spent our time selling technical half-fixes that are hard to explain and that we cannot honestly say will do the job. We've chosen this inside game and lost on the details because we have not established the principle.


It is time for a strategic U-turn. We should forget Congress for now and focus our energies on creating a climate for real reform--a voluntary system of full public financing that replaces the privately financed system we have now. If the details of reform options cannot energize public opinion, let's address the fundamentals: Wealth must not determine access to government; the concept of "one person, one vote" should not be overrun by the practice of "one dollar, one vote." The system we have is unfair to anyone who cannot make multiple $1,000 campaign contributions. Citizens can make no greater investment in a democracy than a few dollars per year to ensure government accountability and political equality. These are patriotic themes Americans understand and care passionately about.


Just suppose that all of us who have focused our efforts on Congress shifted our combined organizational energies and resources to a public education campaign that drives home the important principles and explains what the current system actually costs taxpayers. We have already successfully shown who's getting how much from whom and that has stirred voter anger and resentments against the political system. Future research must reveal what all this money is buying--the tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts, regulatory exemptions, and other "favors" our elected representatives perform for their financial backers.



Suppose that this kind of aggressive, high-profile public education campaign were carried on not just by the same handful of organizations now already active in campaign finance reform. Suppose they were joined by an increasingly wide range of "single issue" groups finally persuaded that major progress on campaign finance is a prerequisite for progress on, say, health care, environmental protection, jobs, affordable housing, and military conversion. And suppose that in addition to all these groups, more newly formed political reform or pro-democracy groups jumped into the fray--including many of those first organized by Ross Perot, Jerry Brown, and Ralph Nader.


Now imagine that all this public ferment and debate about privately financed elections led to cutting-edge reform efforts at the state and municipal level. For example, what if legislation for truly democratically financed elections were introduced and advocacy campaigns launched in dozens of locations around the country? This has already happened in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and Missouri. And, as a potent corollary to all this organizing activity, suppose state and federal courts were barraged with well-researched challenges to the legality and constitutionality of today's privately financed elections.


What might be the result of this kind of all-out effort to awaken the public to the magnitude of the problem? There could arise, in time--not overnight and not in the next session of Congress--an overwhelming public demand for an election finance system that would not penalize non-wealthy candidates and voters, and that would eliminate elected officials' dependence on economically interested campaign contributors. In short, people would demand a system in which the "piper" is paid by the public and elected representatives play the public's "tune."


This kind of plan has been dismissed by some as naive or unrealistic. True, it is largely untried. But it's also true that the reform strategies of the last 20 years have failed to slow our slide toward plutocracy. If we are serious about change, then a far bolder, more imaginative strategy is needed.

You may also like