Campaign Finance: The Sequel

Campaign Finance: The Sequel

With McCain-Feingold finally passed, it’s time to focus again on public funding.


Americans who thought the heavy lifting of campaign finance reform was finished with the passage of the McCain-Feingold bill were quickly disabused of that notion by George Bush. No one expected Bush to sign the ban on soft-money campaign contributions to political parties with any more enthusiasm than a ninth grader showing up for detention. With the Enron Corporation’s “soft money” contributions so much in the limelight, Kenny-Boy Lay’s favorite Republican had to sign the bill. But Bush did not take his punishment quietly. Rather, he was tossing spitballs with a vengeance–signing the bill without notifying Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold, jetting off to raise $4 million for Republican candidates and appointing a reform foe to the Federal Election Commission.

Indeed, with implementation of McCain-Feingold delayed until after November’s elections and with Clinton prosecutor Kenneth Starr leading the legal fight to gut the first major campaign finance reform legislation in a generation, Karl Rove’s political war room in the White House was signaling that neither the President nor his party expects to ever abide by the law. The same message came from the Democratic National Committee headquarters, where chairman Terry McAuliffe cashed a $7 million check from the creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as his aides combed the new law for loopholes. Even if the legal team being assembled to defend McCain-Feingold blocks Starr’s attempt to impeach the legislation’s core components–the ban on soft-money donations to political parties and limits on special-interest-group attack ads aired at election time–there is little doubt even among ardent adherents that McCain-Feingold is a small dam erected against a raging river of special-interest corruption.

The first job, says Feingold, is to keep the dam in place. But he admits that the defense of his legislation can’t be the primary focus of the reform movement that has taken shape over the past decade. “People always said, ‘The bill doesn’t go far enough,’ and they were right,” says Feingold. “What the bill did was to help make campaign finance reform an issue.” Passage of the bill, he adds, “created a feeling that people can change things. I am even more excited about that than the substance of the bill, because that sense of possibility is what makes real reform possible.”

The sense of possibility was missing in 1993, when Feingold came to the Senate and proposed a bill to create a public financing system for federal Congressional elections. “It attracted precisely zero co-sponsors,” the Wisconsin Democrat recalls. “It was obvious we had work to do.” Feingold poured his energy into a more modest proposal he devised with maverick Republican McCain–one that lost even more of its teeth as compromises were made to attract additional Republican support–in part, he says, to make an increasingly cynical and frustrated American public believe anew in the prospect of reform.

The amorphous movement that came together to back McCain-Feingold involved the marriage of strange bedfellows–a coalition that included not just Al Gore and Ralph Nader but leveraged-buyout king Jerome Kohlberg and ice-cream king Ben Cohen. In Feingold’s view, the most significant work was at the grassroots, where local newspapers, churches, student groups and ordinary citizens became engaged not just with the fight to pass one bill in Washington but with home-state struggles to achieve a lot more than a soft-money ban. “These people got involved because they thought we were starting something that would ultimately change our politics,” says Feingold. “Now, we have to prove them right. That’s the critical next step for the campaign finance reform movement.”

The notion that passage of McCain-Feingold ought to be seen as a first step on the road to fundamental reform is echoed by activists. “Had McCain-Feingold failed, I think there would have been despair about whether anything could be achieved,” says Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, which backed the reform but criticized its sponsors for allowing a compromise that increased contribution limits. “For people who were involved in this fight, the idea that McCain-Feingold got through an extremely conservative House and was signed by a President who had vowed not to sign it created a sense that reform could not be denied.” He adds, “Everyone knows this is not enough reform. But passing McCain-Feingold opens up so much debate space. Now, we can talk about what we really want to accomplish.”

Fair enough. But how does a movement that does not speak with one voice and that often marches energetically in different directions take the next step? Predictably, there are plenty of proposals. With the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, as well as a board led by Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Walter Cronkite, former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor’s Alliance for Better Campaigns is pushing action by the Federal Communications Commission or Congress requiring the broadcast industry to develop a television time bank for political candidates. To qualify, candidates would raise $50,000 in small donations. They would then get vouchers worth $250,000 from the time bank, which they could use to obtain free broadcast time. Political advertising as it is currently known would not be eliminated, nor would special-interest giving. But broadcast and cable companies would be required to fund the voucher program with a surcharge on all political advertising sold at prevailing rates.

Like Hillary Clinton’s healthcare reform proposal, Taylor’s plan seeks to reform the system by tweaking existing structures to serve a cautiously defined public good. And, like the former First Lady’s plan, it will face opposition from some of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. An example came when Senator Robert Torricelli attempted to amend the McCain-Feingold bill to require that the broadcast industry, as part of its public interest obligation, provide reduced-cost advertising time to candidates and parties. The National Association of Broadcasters, which spent $11 million to derail free-airtime proposals when Taylor began to advance them in the mid-1990s, got the amendment scrapped.

Taylor gets credit from fellow reformers for taking on an industry that has profited enormously from the current campaign system–local television stations in the top seventy-five markets took in at least $771 million from the sale of 1.2 million political ads in 2000–and for pressuring for the opening of airwaves to more and better debates. But grassroots reformers and key members of the House and Senate quietly express wariness about whether the free-airtime fight is the place to make a stand. There is a good deal more enthusiasm for an initiative proposed by Fred Wertheimer, the former president of Common Cause and current president of Democracy 21. In late April, a fourteen-member task force that has been studying the Federal Election Commission is expected to release a scathing report on what Wertheimer refers to as “a captive agency.” “You have today an anything goes, Wild West-show attitude about compliance with campaign finance reform,” explains Wertheimer. “The laws that are on the books are not treated seriously. So if you want reform, you have to create an enforcement mechanism that works.”

Wertheimer thinks the current FEC, which has been seeded with Republicans who openly oppose meaningful limits on contributions and spending, and with Democrats who frequently play the game for partisan advantage, ought to be eliminated. He would replace it with a single commissioner appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. “We have to get enforcement out from under the problem of commissioners representing each party. Right now, the parties are more interested in checking each other politically than in enforcing the law,” argues Wertheimer. “We need someone who can be held accountable, someone who is expected to enforce the law, not debate it.”

Feingold and McCain–and Representatives Chris Shays and Marty Meehan, who gave their names to the House version of McCain-Feingold–are talking about jointly sponsoring an FEC reform proposal along the lines Wertheimer outlines. And they are reasonably well positioned to sell a structural shift that is required for the enforcement of a law that, after all, even the President signed. But while Wertheimer, Feingold and other policy wonks can get excited about restructuring a federal agency, they admit the initiative is short on the sex appeal needed to roll the movement on. And they are hearing from grassroots campaigners that if the reform movement is to grow–by capitalizing fully upon America’s Enron moment and by making reform a resonant issue in the 2002 and 2004 election cycles–it must go for the bold.

“Our community as a whole is stronger than it’s been in a generation. But we cannot hold this coalition together by tinkering around the edges,” says Public Campaign’s Nyhart. Stephanie Wilson, executive director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, which works with civil rights and church organizations to broaden the base of support for campaign finance reform, says, “If this coalition does not get together and address the way we finance our campaigns, then we’ll never truly engage people of color, working-class people, the great mass of Americans whose votes are the only leverage we’ve got against special interests. There has to be a vision that speaks to all of those who are disfranchised. Our next step has to be putting public financing back on the agenda.”

For years, the reform movement shied away from pushing public financing of elections because it seemed too much to ask of a country that liked the idea of cleaning up elections but was not necessarily ready to pay for it. Decades of battering from foes of reform had made even some liberal members of Congress skeptical. But the past decade has seen dramatic movement on that front at local and state level, in most cases with help from Public Campaign. Maine and Arizona have successfully implemented “Clean Money” systems, which allow for public funding of legislative and statewide campaigns. Minnesota legislators are well along the way to expanding their state’s limited public-financing program. Wisconsin and Arizona have seen significant progress toward plans to publicly finance judicial elections, and North Carolina, New Mexico, Maryland and Illinois are seen by Public Campaign’s Nyhart as states where the issue is heating up. Connecticut legislators have already passed a public financing plan for statewide races, only to have it vetoed by GOP Governor John Rowland. Massachusetts voters enacted a comprehensive Clean Money public-financing law that has yet to be implemented, mainly because of roadblocks erected by House Speaker Tom Finneran (for the latest on the fight, go to

In state after state, notes Nyhart, the public and the courts have proven more amenable to public financing than the politicians. That, he suggests, is a signal that taxpayers are getting the message that special-interest-funded electioneering costs them more–in the form of corporate welfare and skewed tax policy–than paying for campaigns out of the general fund. Like a lot of other activists across the country, Nyhart is enthusiastic about “connect the dots” campaigns that explain the parallels between the votes of legislators and campaign contributions. “There needs to be more pressure on candidates about where they get their money from and how they vote as a result,” he says.

Already, national environmental organizations and advocacy groups such as the Peace Action Education Fund are publishing reviews of Congressional voting on key issues that note the money accepted by members from interested corporations and political action committees. And Feingold has begun “calling the bankroll” in the Senate, reading into the Congressional Record details of special-interest giving on issues facing Congress.

Stephanie Wilson likes it when Feingold calls the bankroll, and she loves it when the Senator refers to the current system as “legalized bribery.” But she wants to add another word to the reform movement’s lexicon. “When you say ‘campaign finance reform’ to most working Americans, it means nothing. When you say ‘Clean Money/Clean Elections’ to poor people, even that means nothing,” she explains. “When you say ‘equality,’ that gets them going, that gets them motivated. We have to connect campaign finance reform to civil rights, to voting rights, to fundamental issues.”

Wilson wants the reform movement to apply what her group calls the Fannie Lou Hamer standard, which recalls the Mississippi civil rights leader who challenged the national Democratic Party to get serious about fighting segregation. Under the standard, the measure of whether a reform is real is determined by the answer to a single question: “How far does this reform really go in making the system fair for someone like Fannie Lou Hamer–a passionate leader, a woman, a person of color, a person of little means?” By that measure, Wilson argues, public financing is the reform that makes the grade. And she is not alone. “The most effective reform–public financing–has been off the table for the past few years,” says Nyhart. “Now that McCain-Feingold has passed, there is a growing sense that if we want this movement to progress, we have to put it back on the table.”

Many in the movement want to start by addressing abuses of the current system for providing public financing for presidential candidates in time for the 2004 election. That makes sense to Feingold, but he wants to see those changes come as part of a fuller program. “It would be a mistake to do something tepid or mild as the next step,” the Senator says. “I think we have to make the leap and say that we need public financing. We have to be able to say that if we win, average people–not just the rich, not just the connected–will have a chance to run for office in this country.”

If that turns out to be the next message of the movement, argues Stephanie Wilson, “Get out of our way, because finally we’ll have a movement that can tell people: ‘We are done tinkering. We are done offering you a little democracy. We’re getting real about reform.'”

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