Ellen Miller

Show Me the Money

Ellen Miller is currently publisher of the online opinion journal TomPaine.com. She was the founder and former director of both the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks electoral spending, and Public Campaign, which pushes for campaign finance reform. She has given careful attention to the role of money in the political process—what she calls "the elephant in the living room"—for nearly 20 years. As she puts it, "Money is access. Money is political power. Those who give money get more than good government in return." As she points out, this path to power is available only to an exclusive few: Less than one-tenth of one percent of the U.S. population gave 83 percent of all the itemized campaign contributions in the 2002 election cycle.

E Magazine: How will campaign finance reform affect the environmental community in the 2004 election?

Ellen Miller: "One of the great untold stories is how little it takes to buy a politician."
Charles Steck

Ellen Miller: Even after the passage of the McCain-Feingold so-called "reform" law, the environmental community will still be outgunned dramatically by the big money that comes from the oil and gas industry or the mining industry. Perhaps even more so, because McCain-Feingold makes things worse by doubling the contribution limits. Candidates can now raise money in $2,000 chunks. This decidedly favors wealthy Americans and those associated with corporations. How many Americans are going to be able to afford a $2,000 contribution to a candidate? Environmentalists may have a few $1,000 or $2,000 contributors but they don’t have nearly as many as the oil and gas industry.

On the other hand, there will be a blossoming of other types of political committees. I fully expect the environmental community, which is a very sophisticated political player, to generate substantial amounts of money to play in the political arena—through 501(c)(4) groups [which are nonprofits that can endorse candidates and work on campaigns] or 527 committees [which have been able to receive unlimited donations without disclosing their source]. It will all be legal, though on the edge of what’s permissible under this new law.

So the environmental community has to exploit loopholes in the laws, or it risks being totally dwarfed by its opponents?

Absolutely. I think whatever’s permissible under law ought to be used. I don’t think any environmental organization should hurt itself and not play in the arena. The problem with the campaign finance reform law is that it didn’t really solve the major problems. It did not squeeze the special-interest contributors out of the political system or reduce the costs of elections.

What about the rise of state conservation voter leagues, which have provided real grassroots support and financing for environmental candidates?

Any grassroots political activity is absolutely key in winning elections. But the first hurdle that any candidate has to jump over is the money—think of it as a "wealth" primary. If candidates don’t have money, the media does not validate them. It’s outrageous but true. Money is the test.

Ann Coulter’s book Slander claims that more political action committee (PAC) money, which directly supports candidates, comes from liberal groups associated with unions, the entertainment industry and trial lawyers than any conservative group.

She’s just dead wrong. She couldn’t be further off. Business out-gives labor by about 10 to one. Among the top contributing PACs are a number of labor organizations, but when you add all the money from PACs, you will see the incredible imbalance I’m talking about.

Is corporate money always anti-environmental?

Not always, but many of the major corporations are not exactly pro-environment and many are clearly hostile.