For government to represent the interests of average people, public officials have to be liberated from their dependence on private interests to finance their campaigns. Doing that means going far beyond anything dreamt of in the watered-down McCain-Feingold bill sloshing its way through Congress, which closes one loophole (soft money) while widening the hard-money pipeline. That’s why a little-noticed storm going on right now in the state of Massachusetts is so important.
Happily, such an alternative approach to privately financed campaigns is not an abstraction. Clean Money/Clean Elections, or full public financing for candidates who agree to raise no private money and abide by spending limits, is the law in four states: Maine, Vermont, Arizona and Massachusetts. The first three states have already experienced one successful run of the system, with more competition in races and numerous incumbents from both parties now in office clean of ties to private contributors. But in Massachusetts, opponents of public financing, led by the Democratic Speaker of the state House of Representatives, are trying to put a stake into its heart just as it goes into effect there for the 2002 election cycle.
In Massachusetts, birthplace of the American Revolution, the voters went for Clean Elections by a margin of 2-1 when they enacted it by initiative in 1998. The law is similar to the Maine and Arizona models, with some minor variations. One big difference, unfortunately, is that in Massachusetts funding has to be appropriated by the legislature. So for the past three years, there’s been a battle to get the state legislative leaders to put about $10 million per year aside to insure enough public funding for statewide and legislative candidates. In past sessions, the law’s opponents have tried to gut it twice, each time backing down in the face of boisterous protests. This year they may succeed unless supporters of Clean Elections manage to ratchet up the public pressure even further. The local press is in an uproar over the legislature’s machinations–not only has the usually liberal Boston Globe issued several thunderous editorials, even the Murdoch-owned Boston Herald, which opposed the Clean Elections initiative in 1998, has come out in favor of the new law now, arguing that the legislature has to respect the people’s will.
But on May 1, acting at the behest of Speaker Tom Finneran–a Democrat in name but an incumbent-protection specialist first and foremost–the Massachusetts House voted essentially to defund the law, eliminating its annual $10 million appropriation and shifting its funding solely to voluntary taxpayer checkoffs on their tax returns. As an existing state checkoff system only brings in $500,000 a year, Finneran’s claim that he is only asking the voters to pay for the law they passed is nothing short of cynical. The vote breakdown shows that this is not a partisan issue: Of the 134 Democrats, eighty-three voted with Finneran, forty-nine opposed him, and two abstained; of the twenty-three Republicans, thirteen voted with the Speaker and ten voted against him. What it really is about is a battle between the haves and have-nots. Incumbents who benefit from the existing system of private financing loathe the idea of real competition for public office, which would undoubtedly occur if challengers receive full public financing for primaries and general elections. It doesn’t bother many of those incumbents that Massachusetts ranks near the bottom in terms of how few contested races it has for the state legislature.