alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.

Reforming The (Campaign Financing) Beast

Two years ago, David Donnelly was working to elect Rep. Tom Andrews (D-ME) to the U.S. Senate. His job on the campaign was to trace the money that flowed into Republican opponent Olympia Snowe's coffers -- donations like the $175,000 that executives from MBNA, a Delaware-based credit card outfit, bundled together."Our opponent was raising big money from companies that had vested interests in who won the election. It became a gut issue for me," Donnelly recalls. Realizing that the ways in which campaigns are funded starkly contradicts the democratic process, Donnelly looked for a job in the campaign finance reform field after his candidate had been defeated. "Lo and behold, the most far-reaching, groundbreaking and historic campaign in the country was happening in my backyard," he says. "So I looked for a job here."Today Donnelly is the campaign manager for Maine Voters for Clean Elections, a grass-roots group that has put a campaign finance reform proposal on the state's November ballot. The group's hard work has paid off: Their initiative enjoys overwhelming support in Maine, and it has become the standard against which all other reform efforts are judged.On election day, voters in Maine will be asked: "Do you want Maine to adopt new campaign finance laws and give public funding to candidates for state office who agree to spending limits?" If the Maine Clean Elections Act passes, candidates in the future will be able to choose between two campaign financing options: securing private funding on their own or participating in a new system that would give them public money with certain restrictions.Those who choose to use private money would see their resources radically curtailed, with individual donor and PAC limits lowered from today's $5,000 to $250 for legislative races and $500 for statewide races. Candidates who opt for public financing would have their campaigns paid for by the state's "Clean Elections Fund," an arrangement for which they must qualify by collecting a certain number of $5 contributions to be deposited in the fund. They must also agree to forgo private donations and observe a shortened campaign season. Their total campaign budgets would be limited to 75 percent of the average amount spent by the winners in the last election before the law goes into effect on January 1, 2000. However, a publicly financed candidate would be allowed to spend as much as double that amount in the event that a privately funded opponent outspends him.Support for the proposal has been enthusiastic, with seven of the state's eight daily newspapers endorsing the group's efforts. For many campaign finance reform advocates, the Maine initiative is a watershed in the effort to get money out of politics. "This is broad, sweeping campaign finance reform by anybody's definition," says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, the Washington-based group that studies the relationship between money and politics. "If it passes, it will open people's eyes to what is possible."John Moyers, executive director of the New Jersey-based Florence and John Schumann Foundation, a major funder of campaign finance reform organizations, agrees. "Maine is the future," he says. "We have to figure out how to do Maine everywhere."Members of the Working Group on Electoral Democracy, an ad hoc organization of campaign finance reform advocates, got the ball rolling three years ago when they hooked up with the Maine Citizens Leadership Fund, a founding member of Donnelly's group. Working with a Schumann Foundation grant, the Leadership Fund adopted a variation of the Working Group's proposal for democratically financed elections in which money for its "Clean Elections Fund" would be raised with a voluntary tax checkoff, cuts in executive and legislative operating budgets, and the $5 contributions mentioned above rather than taxes. Administrative costs of this new election system would be borne by lobbyists, whose registration fees will double from $200 to $400."We have found a mechanism that is revenue-neutral for taxpayers -- not lobbyists -- but for taxpayers," Donnelly says. "And it will resonate with Maine voters." He takes particular pride in the language the campaign has developed to discuss this issue. "Some of the brightest minds in the country have helped develop our message," he boasts.One of those minds is Working Group member John Bonifaz of the Boston-based National Voting Rights Institute. Bonifaz notes that the Maine initiative, the first ballot proposal to establish full public financing, will "dramatically change the way we think about the financing of public elections." He maintains that the measure will help voters reconceptualize electoral democracy. "We have to accept elections as performing a public function that we can't privatize, like public schools and public streets. We as a people need to own this process and we the people need to own it in full."In addition to leveling the electoral playing field, Donnelly hopes campaign finance reform will also reduce people's outrage and cynicism toward the democratic process. "This campaign is completely focused on reinvigorating citizen participation in political debate as a cornerstone of our democracy," he says. "It is their democracy and they are going to vote to take it back."It's a message that has resonated across the state. Supporters of the proposal range from the Green Party to the Christian Civic League, Maine's equivalent to the Christian Coalition. The Maine reformers spent a lot of time talking to voters. Moyers, who has closely followed the process from New York, says this inclusiveness has been the key to the group's success. "They invited everybody to the table and kept inviting them back," he says. "They allowed everybody to be in on it and that built a solid foundation of support. They did a good job with the media. They did good research that got good attention and built their credibility."Donnelly stresses the importance of reform from the ground up. "We began by building a base," he says, "and that culminated on election day this past year when over 1,100 volunteers collected 65,000 signatures in one day to put the initiative on the ballot. Maine will prove to the country that the naysayers who claim that such a strong, comprehensive measure is politically impossible are dead wrong," says Donnelly.What's happening in Maine has reverberated across the nation, raising questions elsewhere about the wisdom of the more moderate reforms that have been proposed repeatedly at both the state and national levels. "The issue," Bonifaz now claims, "is whether the traditional leadership of the reform organizations are going to get on the bandwagon and realize that the public is ready for radical change."Just about everyone agrees that, as John Canham-Clyne, a researcher at Public Citizen and frequent contributor to In These Times, puts it, "one of the fundamental problems in American society is the way money dominates our politics." But, he continues, "there is absolutely no consensus of what is a winning strategy to combat that problem."Campaign financing remedies that have garnered the most congressional support range from feeble to outright impotent. The traditional reform organizations -- Public Citizen, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause -- are supporting a campaign finance measure known as the "Bipartisan Clean Congress Act of 1995," sponsored officially by Reps. Linda Smith (R-WA), Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Martin Meehan (D-MA). The "Bipartisan" proposal includes the following measures: the elimination of all PAC contributions; a voluntary spending limit of $600,000 for House races; rewards for candidates who adhere to this voluntary limit with discounts for postage, radio and television; a requirement that candidates raise 60 percent of their contributions in the state. The bill also caps individual contributions exceeding $250 to an aggregate limit of no more than 25 percent of the spending limit, tightens reporting requirements on independent expenditures and prohibits the bundling of donations sent through the mail. However, since the ban on all PAC contributions is likely to be overturned as a violation of the First Amendment, the bill contains a fall-back position that would limit PAC contributions to $1,000, and aggregate PAC contributions to 25 percent of the voluntary spending limit. Then there's the Democratic version of this proposal, which differs from the bipartisan bill only in that it allows contributions from PACs, which, not coincidentally, are the main vehicles though which labor unions contribute to Democratic candidates.Critics charge that the two bills do nothing to alter the system in which private money -- and the strings attached to that money -- controls public elections. From Boston, John Bonifaz looks askance at these doings down in Washington. "It's the Washington strategy of get what you can," he says. "And when it is all said and done, it is piecemeal reform. Private wealthy interests will still be able to dominate the campaign financing process."Rep. David Obey (D-WI) agrees. He is the sponsor of the only bold initiative that has come out of Congress this year, the "Public Interest Campaign Reform Act." On May 8, Obey, who represents a northern district of Wisconsin with a long radical tradition, sent out a "Dear Colleague" letter that is astonishing in its forthright assessment of the problem. It reads, in part:It is time for campaign finance reform efforts to stop focusing on small issues and take this issue head-on, rather than try to play around the edges by vainly trying to build a voluntary system which will cause contributors to behave as reformers would like. ... Congress should pass legislation that contains a congressional finding that the existing system of private contributions is a threat to the nation's democratic process. ... The only way to fundamentally change the current system is to take out all private money from financing general elections. ... Elections belong to the public, and they should be financed by all of the people, not just the well-heeled and well- connected. ... The central issue in campaign financing is not whether rich or well-connected people contribute too much collectively through PACs. The issue is whether the rich and well-connected have too much influence on the political system, whether they contribute individually or collectively. They do, and this bill would correct that.The letter gets better. Anticipating that the Supreme Court will find such a law unconstitutional because it limits the money a person can give to a political campaign -- and in the court's view money equals speech -- Obey calls for a constitutional amendment. Only then, Obey writes, can legislators "do what needs to be done to prevent the Congress of the United States from becoming an institution populated only by millionaires, or by people who are strongly supported by millionaires."Obey's missive notwithstanding, members of Congress are hardly likely to vote to change the system, however corrupt, that got them elected. "I am looking past 1996," says Moyers. "Whatever happens in Washington doesn't really matter." At the Center for Responsive Politics, Miller puts it this way: "All congressional reform is stuck between a rock and a hard place, the only thing that is moving is at the state level."California is one state where, like Maine, the issue is definitely moving. Whether it's getting anywhere, however, is a different question.In November, California citizens will have a chance to choose between two reform packages. Californians for Political Reform, an umbrella group that includes Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and United We Stand, is proposing a tepid reform package that would establish a voluntary system of campaign spending caps and limits of $1,000 for individuals and PACs.Meanwhile, Californians Against Political Corruption, a coalition that includes the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), the Service Employees International Union and the Mexican-American Political Association, has put forward a more far-reaching option that would enact $100 campaign contribution limits ($200 for statewide races). PACs are banned outright under this proposal but unions and professional associations are allowed to contribute via newly created Citizen Contribution Committees. Though better than Common Cause's non-reform, these proposals fall short of the standard being set in Maine."Did you know there is a war on here?" asks Fernando Igrejas at Californians Against Political Corruption. Hostility between the two groups is running high. On June 6, Californians for Political Reform issued a press release charging Igrejas' group with pursuing "Snake Oil Reform," attacking their rivals' proposal first because it may be overturned in the courts, and second because it abolishes corporate PACs while allowing citizen PACs to flourish.The issue of $100 limits like those mandated by the CalPIRG proposal is hotly debated in campaign finance reform circles. "One hundred dollar limits are okay, but how do they challenge the current situation?" wonders Moyers. "I am increasingly convinced that unless reform-minded people can speak directly to the inherent conflict of interest that occurs when public servants are privately financed, we will never be able to change the conversation to favor real reform."Moyers points to polls done in California, Oregon, Montana and Missouri by the Center for New Democracy, the New Party's public- interest adjunct, which show that the majority of voters would agree to public financing for campaigns if it would limit the influence of special interests.Miller shares these concerns. As she sees it, the Maine proposal, which includes a voluntary system of public financing that is likely to satisfy the Supreme Court's First Amendment requirements, is forcing reformers to face what she calls "the great Catch-22" of the money and politics debate. "Do you reach for the stars or do you do what is self-defined as politically viable?" she asks. "Everybody has taken that latter road. But the people of Maine reached for the stars to change the political culture and put campaign finance reform within grasp. If it is successful, it will make all the non-believers sit up and take notice."Others, like Doug Phelps, the chair of U.S. PIRG and a board member of the Center for New Democracy, maintain that the $100 limit is the way to go. "These guys are all wet," Phelps says of advocates of more radical reform. According to him, the situation in Maine is unique. In other states, he says, its far-reaching proposal would be "a sure loser." "For the past 25 years we have focused on getting public financing legislation through Congress," he says. "It's great in theory, but we have gone to contribution limits because that is something that people can relate to and it is very difficult to attack."To those who fear that $100 limits will be struck down by the courts, Phelps responds, "We cannot succeed as progressives by trying to guess what the courts will do, or, worse, getting down on our knees and groveling before the bench. The essence of politics is to shape the law to serve the people. Every great social change in American history was originally damned by the courts -- abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, the 40-hour workweek, health and safety regulations, anti-trust laws, civil rights."But another critic of $100 limits, who asked not to be named, worries that the Center for New Democracy is pushing a partial measure that will raise the hopes of voters that they will actually fix something. "I think that what they are doing is going to shoot them in the foot. The $100 limit will give rise to bundling. It will not take money out of the system. When that money gets bundled together and put in a corporate envelope, that is an exercise in political influence."Although critical of the $100 limit strategy, John Bonifaz travels around the country defending $100 limit cases from legal attack. To his mind, the real impediments to meaningful campaign finance reform are the Supreme Court's 1976 Buckley vs. Valeo decision, which holds that mandatory campaign spending limits are unconstitutional -- and, oddly enough, the American Civil Liberties Union, which leads the opposition to contribution limits.The ACLU does not trumpet its involvement in the issue, or make much of the fact that in every state where voters have passed laws setting $100 limits on campaign donations, it has gone to court to get the laws struck down. These legal battles are not mentioned in ACLU promotional literature, in the group's quarterly report to members or on the ACLU Web page.The ACLU's official position on campaign finance reform asserts that "Limitations on contributions or expenditures made by individuals or organizations for the purpose of advocating causes or candidates in the public forum impinge directly on freedom of speech and association. Their implementation poses serious dangers to the First Amendment."Critics consequently charge the ACLU with supporting the idea that rich people have a constitutional right to more speech than poor people. "The ACLU never advertises how they are out there to defend the right of wealthy candidates," says Bonifaz. "It would not be helpful in their fundraising efforts to tell the rank-and-file civil liberties members that one of their main priorities is to squash the rights of non-wealthy voters and candidates all across the country." Bonifaz is confident, however, that the ACLU leadership will eventually respond to growing opposition within the organization and change its tune. (ACLU officials failed to respond to my repeated requests for interviews.)Up in Maine, the ACLU constitutes the only opposition to the public financing proposal to surface so far. "The Maine ACLU is not for free speech," says Donnelly. "They are for expensive speech. The idea that someone who has enough money can go out to buy a second car, a second house or a larger market share is all well and good. We all kind of agree with that. But the idea that someone is buying an election is different. Citizens have a strong public interest in who can buy influence by affecting the outcome of an election."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close