Reforming Elections

Two Green Views

Campaign finance reform is a tricky subject: What at first looks like an obvious choice—say, abolishing political action committees (PACs)—has hidden, sometimes dangerous implications. Add to that the ease with which politicians obscure the real issues, and you’ve got a recipe for confusion and the status quo. E talked to two grassroots leaders who have given serious thought to creating the political will for real—and lasting—reforms…

Ira Arlook has been executive director of the Washington-based political organizing group Citizen Action since its founding in 1979. “Citizen Action is relatively less optimistic about trying to regulate private money than many groups that want campaign finance reform. We think that somehow, with all that enormous corporate power, the money is going to find its way into influencing the outcome of elections. The real question is how you increase the likelihood that people without those resources, who are not going to represent those interests, get to run competitively. And for that you have to have public financing.

Getting private money out of elections in some formal, legal way is desirable, but a lot of this incremental nibbling around the edges, like the notion of doing away with political action committees (PACs), I think is just misdirected. More money comes from individual donors than from PACs, and if PACs disappear those personal donations will increase. Let’s assume that there are five or six doors right now that money can travel through to affect the outcome of elections. If you close two of them, the other four doors are more than ample to carry the same amount of money. All you’re doing is destabilizing one side or the other.

I think we need full public financing, and we haven’t really seen a concerted, properly funded effort to achieve that. I think it would take a major national education campaign over a number of years. People are certainly angry enough about the influence of special-interest money. The question is, can you turn that anger from passivity to support for a particular approach? There’s enough polling data out there to suggest that it’s within the realm of possibility. We think the Maine initiative is very important (see sidebar), because if it does pass it will give hope to efforts in other states. And so it’s part of the long march towards real campaign finance reform.

Citizen Action thinks that no incumbent candidate has yet been made to pay a price for the amount of special interest money he or she has taken and spent. And so we’re involved in efforts to draw the link between money and votes on issues. We want to demonstrate that most of the people taking this money are representing their contributors, not their constituents. An individual voter can try to a) think about that when he or she votes; and b) write letters to the editor and other things that candidates are going to notice. More and more, the climate would be created in which candidates who would normally take a lot of special-interest money begin to question whether or not it’s worth it. When we make the links between votes and the money they take, it really drives these guys crazy—as well it should.”

Deborah Callahan has been, since January, the president of the Washington-based League of Conservation Voters (LCV). She comes to LCV from a career in politics that includes work on the Walter Mondale campaign in 1984 and the Gore for President bid in 1988. She is also the former environmental program director of the W. Alton Jones Foundation, and served as executive director of the Brainerd Foundation.

“The flow of PAC and individual cash contributions is certainly an important factor in, for instance, understanding the Contract With America. Why on Earth does this congressional leadership think it’s rational to try and eviscerate 25 years of environmental law, one of the most popular programs in our country? You have to come to the conclusion that the money which is funding the campaigns of these anti-environmentalists and corporate polluters has simply got to be what’s driving them.

Some of these members, the people who are leading the charge, seem to truly believe that there really isn’t a problem with environmental degradation in this country. But the majority out there campaigning away are being led to their convictions because of the money in politics. The cash causes them to fly in the face of what their true constituents, the citizens of this country, really want—and that’s a healthy environment.

One of the things that’s rarely discussed in finance reform debates is ensuring that there continues to be a mechanism through which groups of citizens can organize to contribute to campaigns. Typically, when you think of PACs you think of corporate PACs, but a much less powerful but still important sector is those public interest environmental, peace and women’s issues PACs. We’re not married to PACs per se, but we want to make sure that whatever proposal comes down the line there’s some way in which citizens can collectively impact the electoral process. Without that, you become captive to the candidates’ campaigns, and you’re not allowing groups like LCV to put pressure on them. That would be a significant problem for the environmental community.

Obviously, the influence of polluters’ money in campaigns and elections far outweighs anything that the public interest community can muster. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. LCV operates a PAC; it’s part of what we are. In 1994, LCV gave away over $1 million to pro-environmental candidates. This year, given how our contributions were swamped in 1994, we’re considerably reducing the amount of PAC checks we write and are instead developing a “Dirty Dozen” campaign to tell the public about 12 of the most anti-environmental congresspeople. We’re weighing a number of factors to make our choices, and we think it will be the premier environmental electoral campaign of the year.

As long as the law mandates that PACs are the way to influence the political process, LCV is going to have one. LCV has not taken a formal position on reform yet, but we will do that when we get through this election cycle. Our board, the staff and our supporters are all strongly encouraging us to take a stand.”