The Evil of Access
Most senators and representatives I interviewed thought Congress had exhausted itself in the McCain-Feingold fight and that this Republican Congress had no interest in going further. However, Fred Wertheimer of the campaign-reform group Democracy 21, citing the revolution of rising expectations, believes that "winning McCain-Feingold will open the door to another round," if not in this Republican Congress then in a future one. "And we have put together the best coalition I've ever seen on an issue--from the AARP to the Sierra Club to labor and some businesses."
But 535 campaign finance experts in Congress don't want to change the rules that got them there and have kept them there; and there are hundreds of large interests who invest thousands and reap billions, a rate of return unrivaled since IBM and Microsoft went public--and who like things as they are.
So systemic reform may turn on the 2004 presidential election. If Gore, Kerry, Gephardt or Daschle runs against the current money game as ardently as McCain did--and wins--our slow-motion decline from democracy to plutocracy could end. Democrats searching for a popular and important message should embrace three fundamental reforms based on the slogan "Don't Let Enron Run Your Democracy."
1. Public Financing. The rationale is simple: If, say, twenty special interests give a senator $100,000 each, they own him or her; if instead a million taxpayers give $2 each in public funds, we own him or her. Isn't it preferable for elected officials to be responsive to all voters rather than to relatively few donors? "Democratically funded elections" could follow either the New York City or the Arizona model. Under the first, 4-to-1 matching grants are made for all gifts up to $250 from people who can vote for the candidate (so a $25 gift becomes $125); under the second, after a gubernatorial candidate crosses a certain threshold--raising 4,000 contributions of at least $5--he or she receives all subsequent funding up to a specified ceiling from the public treasury, which could be raised by a "democracy surtax" imposed on registered lobbyists, political consultants and TV advertisers.
Public financing has worked in presidential campaigns and in New York City, Arizona and Maine elections. It avoids First Amendment arguments, since it increases speech instead of limiting it, and majorities of 70 percent regularly support it.
Two strategies can help win over even more voters and some legislators to democratically funded elections: Because the current private system of financing costs tens of billions in corporate welfare, pollution and lost productivity, any public financing system would be inexpensive by comparison. Also, bad policies--for example, privatization of Social Security and weaker fuel-efficiency standards--should be publicly linked to big contributions so voters understand the impact on their health and wallets.
2. Spending Limits. Because the financial "alms" race steals time and buys access, Congress and the Supreme Court should approve Vermont-like spending limits, which existed in the 1971 and 1974 federal campaign-finance laws until Buckley threw them out. But isn't money protected First Amendment speech, as Senators McConnell, Lott et al. claim? No, money is property, as Justice John Paul Stevens concluded in a recent case, which is why the 1907 Tillman Act has banned corporate contributions for nearly a century. How does it advance First Amendment values to allow a few wealthy interests to spend millions of dollars more and drown out the voices and contributions of millions of average citizens?
3. Free or Discounted TV. Because the airwaves belong to the public, we provide broadcasters with federal licenses--for free--on the condition that they agree to serve "the public interest, convenience, and necessity." But they have not lived up to their end of the bargain, perhaps because broadcasters pulled down $1 billion in revenue from political commercials in the 2000 elections. Reducing that revenue would mean cutting into profit margins that average between 30 and 50 percent.