Demand Campaign Finance Reform

Republicans in Congress are preparing to spend millions of dollars to mount hearings in order to thrash Democratic fundraising excesses in the recent election. The D's are balking at giving the congressional inquisitors a blank check, while the R's are willing to spend as much as it takes to shed light on Democratic money-grubbing - as long as it does not tread on GOP fundraising scandals. Bill Clinton, in a statesmanlike pose, admits that "mistakes were made." Since he won't be running for anything, he supports campaign finance reform.

Congress could save the taxpayers' money by simply adopting the campaign finance reforms sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis. The bill would treat the most glaring symptom of the recent scandals by banning national parties from soliciting or receiving contributions of "soft money" that are supposed to be used for party-building activities but are practically used to supplement campaigns. Such money is now unlimited and unregulated.

At a February symposium at the University of Texas on the future of American political parties, William Crotty, a professor at Northeastern University, noted a few facts on campaign financing: The 1996 federal elections cost roughly $2 billion, twice the cost of the previous high in 1992. It took $20 to $25 million raised by January 1996 to establish a candidate as a serious contender in the Republican presidential primary this last time around. By September 1996, before the stretch run for the general election, more money already had been raised and spent than in the entire 1991-92 election cycle. And "soft money," the large contributions of the sort raised by John Huang, outpaced political action committee contributions by a wide margin as the Democrats raised $229 million and the Republicans raised $312 million.

The notorious 100 coffee klatches at the White House raised $27 million, but Crotty noted that the Republicans at their national convention also solicited corporate sponsors at $250,000 each, promising access to the presidential nominee and congressional committee chairs. Visits to Washington also were promised for GOP "season ticket holders," and 75 corporations took advantage, including Philip Morris, AT&T, Brown & Williamson, ARCO and RJR-Nabisco. The Democrats got 45 corporations to contribute $250,000 for a similar program.

Corporate PACs gave nearly $140 million to House and Senate candidates, with $100 million going to Republicans and $40 million to Democrats. Organized labor donated $46.3 million, with $42.6 million going to Democrats. That is more a reflection of how anti-worker the Republican agenda is rather than an indication of how pro-labor the Democrats are.

Efforts to reach "gentlemen's agreements" on campaign limits are virtually meaningless. As Crotty noted, both Senate candidates in Massachusetts, in order to save their personal fortunes, agreed to limit their expenditures to $5 million each. But as the race closed with the rivals in a dead heat, the agreements were tossed by the way and both ended up spending approximately $7 million.

Crotty also noted that low expense limits favor incumbents who have the name recognition. He favored beefing up the Federal Election Commission to expedite investigations and rulings. (The FEC was targeted for budget cuts by the Republican 104th Congress.)

Public opinion demands reforms that reduce the dependence of candidates on wealthy contributors. Two-thirds of likely voters before the last election thought public financing was a good idea. Using the initiative and referendum process that exists in 24 states, reformers - led by Common Cause, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) and the League of Women Voters - in the past few years have pushed through campaign reform laws that limit contributions in Florida, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Missouri, Montana and Oregon. Close to 30 other states are rallying coalitions to push for new election laws, through legislation or ballot initiative, over the next two years, the National Journal reported.

At the federal level, under the McCain-Feingold bill, candidates who agree to voluntarily spending limits - including a $250,000 cap on personal funds - would be eligible for free television time, additional discounts on TV buys and cut rates on postage for campaign mailings. To qualify, candidates would also agree to raise at least 60 percent of their campaign money from individuals in their home states.

The legislation would restrict contributions by individuals not eligible to vote in U.S. elections. It also would place new restrictions on contributions from political action committees, or PACs, and on "bundling," a practice by which small donations to candidates are collected to produce larger contributions.

Efforts to pass McCain-Feingold in the 104th Congress were stopped short due to a filibuster led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. - a longtime opponent of campaign spending limits. The Senate fell six votes short of cutting off debate. In the face of the demand for reform, some Republicans are proposing to raise individual contribution limits but close loopholes for soft money donations. Such "reforms" might make campaign financing a little more honest, but special interests would still be buying and selling politicians.

These proposals would not solve the problem of independent spending by PACs or special interests on "attack ads." The reason is the 1976 Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which held that persons could spend as much money as they wished to air their own political views under the First Amendment. It equated political spending with speech. Groups such as the Christian Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union have successfully challenged state reforms in court on the basis that they violate the First Amendment, and the Supreme Court ruled last June in Colorado Republican Campaign Committee v. FEC that the government may not restrict the amount that political parties spend on behalf of candidates as long as the expenditures are not coordinated. In that decision, four justices called into question party spending limits of any kind.

Some reform advocates have called for a constitutional amendment to correct that judicial interpretation, but we are wary of such fixes, knowing that constitutional amendments can come back to bite in ways the framers of the amendment might not have intended. Who knew after the Civil War, for example, when the states were ratifying the 14th Amendment to ensure equal rights for recently freed slaves that the courts would read the amendment as ordering civil rights for corporations?

Instead, a voluntary system of campaign limits that qualify a campaign for public financing should pass court muster. It would allow cash-poor candidates to mount a respectable race and get their name and platform before the voters without selling out to special interests, as they must under the current system.

Public financing is the long-term answer. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., is among the few senators publicly call for this solution. While such a plan stands no chance to pass this Congress, seven states have adopted some form of public financing in state races. Minnesota, Michigan, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Hawaii and Wisconsin have adopted variations on public financing, and voters in Maine last fall approved the first law providing for complete public financing of state races, to begin in 2000.

Candidates in Maine will qualify for public funds by reaching a threshold of small contributions from registered voters in the state. After they reach that threshold and accept public dollars they must limit spending and take no more private money. Ten other states are pursuing Maine-style public financing.

U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., has proposed a public financing bill, using the Minnesota model, which allows state legislative candidates to qualify for a state grant if they meet a threshold for small donations - $1,500 for House candidates and $3,000 for Senate candidates - and if they accept voluntary spending limits.

Another proposal by the Working Group on Social Democracy, an association of grassroots organizers and researchers, would base eligibility on a relatively high number of five-dollar qualifying contributions from registered voters within the district or state (for example, 1,000 individual contributions for a state representative candidate.)

Some argue that any fundraising threshold for public funds is still unfair. "[Qualification by fundraising] is reminiscent of the poll tax or of an earlier era when in many states only white male property owners could vote," corporate anthropologist Jane Anne Morris wrote in the Posse Democratus Gazette. "Money is not speech, and should have no part in the democratic process. Signatures are enough."

The Working Group estimates the cost of publicly financed elections at $500 million annually. While more than two-thirds of voters support public financing (according to the Center for Responsive Politics) a recent Washington Post survey found only 12% favor paying for the system with tax money. And the percentage of taxpayers "checking off" $3 of their income taxes to pay for presidential campaigns has declined from 28% in 1978 to 14.5% in 1994.

In the 12/96 Progressive Populist, we suggested a 10% tax on broadcast advertising, which would raise $4.76 billion. That would allow the federal government to pay for federal races, provide a like amount for grants for similar programs at the state level, and allow Congress to restore full funding for an independent Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Public financing of political campaigns will require the recruitment and election of a flock of candidates who are pledged to enact it, because the current leadership in Congress has no interest in it or is flatly opposed to a system that, in their own eyes, would only help challengers against established incumbents.

In the meantime, voters should urge Congress to pass the McCain-Feingold bill as the best campaign reform that is possible this session. But voters will have to work on the 41 Republican senators who supported McConnell's filibuster against the reforms last June and are still around.
-- Jim Cullen

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