Everyone Talks About Campaign Finance Reform, But Grassroots Groups Are Making It Happen
In November, voters in Maine will find an intriguing referendum on their ballots. The Maine Clean Election Act, endorsed by a wide coalition that crosses party lines would, if enacted, force sweeping changes in the state’s politics as usual. “We really believe Maine will be the state to break through the glass ceiling on the campaign finance reform issue,” says Maine Voters for Clean Elections campaign manager David Donnelly. “We want to put the citizens back in charge of the election process.”
The Maine proposal, which has already received the endorsement of seven of the state’s eight daily newspapers, is no cosmetic reform. And the political process in Maine—a state where paper company largess often determines a candidate’s fate—is richly in need of reform.
The state (where politicians typically spend $4,500 on legislative races) currently allows $5,000 political action committee (PAC) contributions, and $1,000 individual donations. The ballot initiative would limit contributions from both PACs and individuals to $500 in the governor’s race and $250 in the legislative contests. (Although PACs get the bulk of the attention, it’s important to include individual contributions, too. In the 1994 congressional races, donations from individuals constituted 60 percent of the funding, and the money often comes from the same corporate people who support the PACs. And PAC money made up less than one percent of the cash raised in the 1992 presidential race.)
Maine’s proposal would also include an optional “clean elections option,” providing public financing for candidates who agree to abide by a set of spending limits and a shortened campaign season. (And if a candidate is in danger of being swamped by a non-complying opponent, the law provides matching funds. All the cash comes from legislative and executive branch budget cuts, new lobbyist fees, and a voluntary tickoff on tax forms.)
“This initiative is incredibly popular right now,” Donnelly says. “Money has just exploded in politics, and people are disgusted with how the system is run by someone other than them.” And nowhere are people more disgusted than in the environmental movement. In the 1991-1992 election cycle, environmentalists could muster less than $2 million in campaign contributions, but their well-meaning efforts were washed away by $21 million from the energy and natural resources industries.
Breaking Ground in California
In California, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) has been trying to address this financial imbalance. A ballot initiative there would limit individual campaign contributions (which have no limit now) to $100 ($200 for statewide offices). California state assembly races are now 90 percent dependent on contributions that are either out-of-state or over $100.
According to Douglas Phelps, USPIRG’s chairperson, “Just ridiculous stuff happens in California, like $125,000 donations to state assembly candidates four days before the election.” The ballot initiative would limit out-of-district contributions to 25 percent of the total.
Campaign finance reform has become a winning issue for USPIRG, which in 1994 was victorious in less-sweeping referendums it ran in Montana, Missouri and Oregon. It lost only in Colorado (and is back there this year). “The most crucial strategic reform we’ve made is getting the labor movement involved,” says Phelps. “In the past, the unions have opposed finance reform, because they thought it would limit their own contributions. But working people can’t hope to match the millions pouring in on the other side, and now labor is working with us.”
Campaign reform is an issue that unites the traditional progressive coalition with the so-called “populist” groups, including United We Stand America, taxpayer’s revolt groups, GATT and NAFTA opponents, term limit advocates and even America Firsters like Pat Buchanan. Such large coalitions would have probably made even more headway if contribution-limit proposals hadn’t been caught in the courts, their constitutionality questioned. (The right to spend unlimited amounts of money in election campaigns was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision.)
That’s one reason why Ellen Miller, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, supports full public financing of elections. “The $100-limit initiatives don’t deal with many of the major financing problems,” she says. “They mean that the candidates will spend even more time raising money. And they don’t deal with the ‘bundling’ issue [presenting large numbers of small contributions in a single block]. But more important, every court that has looked at $100 limit laws has found them unconstitutional.”
Miller applies a four-point litmus test to campaign reform proposals: (1) Does it enhance competition?; (2) Does it work to eliminate the inherent conflict of interest caused by private financing?; (3) Does it guarantee access to the political system, regardless of whether an individual donates money?; and (4) Does it help to stop the political money chase? “These are the things people really hate about the political system,” Miller says. “It’s why eight out of 10 people will say that members of Congress ‘care more about special interests than about people like me.’ In one fell swoop, public financing handles the vast majority of the problems of the current system and doesn’t create new ones.”
There are a variety of approaches to public financing, but the simplest and probably best system would allocate set amounts of government cash to legitimate primary and general election candidates. Since political support for that radical approach is lacking, most proposals currently before the voters make public financing a voluntary option, with incentives—including cash and free TV time—to comply.
In 1994, 74 percent of Missourians voted for a sweeping election reform package known as Proposition A. But because the ballot initiative limited campaign contributions, it was thrown out by the courts. This year, a wide coalition called the Missouri Alliance for Campaign Reform is pushing a similar measure in the state legislature. According to the Alliance’s Ben Senturia, the Missouri citizens’ bill offers something very close to full public financing. “Candidates who agree to take no private money in the primary and general election will be fully funded,” Senturia says. “For instance, a gubernatorial candidate would get $1 million to wage a primary, and candidates for other statewide offices would get $500,000. State Senate candidates would receive $50,000; candidates for the state House $25,000. We’re trying to eliminate the cost of raising money. Candidates’ fundraising costs virtually disappear, and they have more time talking about issues and engaging the voters.”
A major objections to public financing, of course, is that it adds to the tax burden. In Missouri, the money would come from a .6 percent surcharge on the state income tax. But Senturia says the tax bite is a bargain when weighed against the financial burden of not having such reforms. “It’s esti
mated that full federal financing of national elections would only cost $5 per taxpayer per year,” he says. “Compare that to the $2,000 to $3,000 all of us are paying because of the savings and loan scandal. Add in the banking and environmental costs—money down a rathole as a quid pro quo for special interests—and campaign finance reform is a great deal for taxpayers.” If the Missouri Alliance can’t get action in the legislature this year, it will rework its bill as a ballot initiative.
Getting Congress to Act
Another approach—a national legislative one—was pursued by the bipartisan team of Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI), Fred Thompson (R-TN) and John McCain (R-AZ). The senators, noting that congressional campaigns cost a record $724 million in 1994, proposed to set voluntary spending limits based on states’ voting-age populations. Candidates who agreed to comply with those limits would have gotten cut-rate postage, as well as free, 30-minute prime-time television access, coupled with discounts on broadcast advertising purchases. Other provisions would have limited out-of-state contributions to 40 percent of the total; eliminated so-called “soft” money (virtually unlimited contributions from individuals to political parties); banned all political action committees (PACs); restricted “bundling” and limited use of personal funds to $250,000; and increased financial disclosure requirements.
Before the Senate voted, Feingold, was cautiously optimistic, though he admitted that campaign finance reform is a “tough row to hoe.” He was right. In late June, Senate Republicans kept the issue from even coming up for a vote. Republicans actually have considerable vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Congressional Democrats took in $11.65 million in PAC money in 1995; the GOP raked in $23 million. The figures for individual contributions are even more unbalanced: Republicans $57 million, Democrats $20 million. In 1992, a Republican president, George Bush, vetoed a comprehensive reform package that had passed both houses of Congress. In 1994, a Republican filibuster killed another bill in the Senate.
Feingold, noting that congressional campaigns cost a record $724 million in 1994, says he actually prefers full public financing of elections, but there isn’t enough support for that “radical” alternative. Feingold knows—a public finance bill he introduced on the first day of the 104th Congress died quickly.
The House is also considering a less far-reaching bill, co-sponsored by Linda Smith (R-WA), Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Martin Meehan (D-MA), that would limit (but not ban) money from PACs, put the brakes on out-of-state contributions, and eliminate both “soft” money and contribution limits for politicians running against well-heeled opponents who spend more than $100,000 of their own money.
Ed Davis, Common Cause’s associate director for legislative policy, says 25 years of working on this issue has made the liberal lobbying group somewhat wary of its prospects. “It’s always a tough battle to get campaign reform bills passed,” Davis says. “It monkeys around with the survival of elected officials—what they view as their own election prospects. They’re comfortable with the system that got them into office. And since that system favors incumbents—them—you’re asking members of Congress to do what is basically against their nature.
Davis says Common Cause agrees with the Center for Responsive Politics’ Miller that it will take “overwhelming public pressure” to reform the system. “And,” he says, “we’re trying very hard to develop that pressure. We’re working with such groups as Public Citizen and United We Stand to put pressure on both the states and the congressional districts.” The biggest resistance, Davis says, is from the leadership, including former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who dragged his feet in putting campaign finance reform on the Senate’s calendar.
Environmentalists can be forgiven for wondering why they should spend time on something as dry and off-the-topic as campaign finance reform when there are forests to protect and endangered species to save. But as the 104th Congress has definitively proven, “dirty money” and its influence can undo many years of hard-fought environmental victories. Unless politicians are beholden to the people, not polluter PAC money, the vicious cycle will continue.