How small-donor democracy can save campaign finance reform.
Ten years ago, the United States held its first billion-dollar election–that was roughly the amount spent by all candidates for Congress and the presidency put together. The same year brought the first large-scale campaign finance scandal since Watergate, best remembered for the almost accurate metaphor of President Bill Clinton selling overnights in the Lincoln Bedroom in exchange for large contributions to the Democratic Party. And both took place at a time when Americans were deeply disconnected from politics; the 1996 election was the only presidential election since 1960 in which turnout of the voting-age population fell below 50 percent.
In reaction to this dual landmark, the modern campaign finance reform movement was born. It wasn’t the first time Washington had tried to bring the influence of money on our democracy under control. Campaign finance reform had been a live issue since at least the time of Watergate, in the mid-1970s. But since the radical changes of the 1974 Campaign Finance Act, it had been an insiders’ game, with little effort to build a grassroots movement or do more than sand down the rough edges of the system. In the early 1990s, the greatest concern was political action committees (PACs), through which lobbyists and their clients channeled their influence in donations.
But the rise of “soft money” in the mid-1990s–unlimited contributions, often directly from corporations, which had been barred from politics since 1907–made the old worry about PACs seem quaint. In response, a new generation of reformers aimed to make campaign finance reform a public priority. With support from across the political landscape–the editorial boards of almost every major newspaper; a handful of older good-government organizations like Common Cause, Public Citizen, and the League of Women Voters; and newer groups like Public Campaign and the Brennan Center for Justice–elected officials, most notably Senator John McCain, took up the charge.
And a lot of liberal activists turned from other issues to these questions of process. I was one of them. After several years on Capitol Hill working on education, urban development, welfare reform, and taxes, I became convinced that we were spinning our wheels on these narrow substantive issues when it was really democracy itself that was broken. As reformers like to say, campaign finance would be the reform that made all other reforms possible. So when I left Capitol Hill, I went to work for one of the major foundations that was supporting the movement.
Reformers moved in two general directions, which split the movement into roughly two factions. One, Washington-based and incremental, found a fierce ally in McCain and his Democratic counterpart Senator Russell Feingold and set out to ban soft money from federal elections. The other, more ambitious and usually tied (as I was) to other progressive causes, turned away from Washington and toward the states, setting out to stir up popular interest in an idea that long had been dismissed as impractical at the federal level: generous public financing for all candidates.
A decade has now passed, and it’s time to ask some critical questions about campaign finance reform. Has it been worth the money and effort? Has the reformers’ analysis of politics circa 1996 been borne out by events? Have their solutions been plausible–politically, constitutionally, or as policy? Have they broadened the movement beyond the good-government core of public radio listeners and editorial writers? Is economic inequality still reflected in and reinforced by the political process? Is the politics of 2007 improved in any measurable way over the politics of 1996? And if not, is that because real campaign finance reform didn’t happen or because what was passed into law didn’t work?
Steps Forward and Back
Each of the two main factions had some undeniable successes in the decade of reform. The passage of the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) in 2002 was a victory for the cause, and its vindication in the Supreme Court was seen by legal scholars as a significant step toward the Court giving greater deference to legislatures on regulation of money in politics. The publicfinancing faction had notable victories as well, winning ballot initiatives in the late 1990s to create fully public systems (sometimes called “clean money”) in Maine, Arizona, and Massachusetts (although the latter was never implemented and later repealed).
Nevertheless, judged by the most visible results on promises like getting big money out of politics or cleaning up politics, campaign finance reform has been, to put it mildly, a disappointment. Ten years after the first billion-dollar election, the United States is headed into an election in which over a billion dollars is likely to be spent by the candidates for a single office: the presidency. Politics has gotten more expensive at other levels as well. The average amount spent by a congressional candidate in 2006 was $1.3 million, and many states have begun to see million-dollar campaigns for seats in the state legislature.
As for corruption, recent congressional scandals make the banal cash-for access deal of the Lincoln Bedroom episode seem insignificant. The scandals involving Jack Abramoff and other lobbyists and contractors have ensnared a House majority leader, the chair of the House Rules Committee, the chair of the House Administration Committee, and a key member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and involve hundreds of millions of dollars of public spending. Major policy initiatives, from the Medicare prescription’drug program to the 2004 energy bill, appear to have been wildly distorted by the influence of campaign donors and their lobbyists. During the vote on the Medicare bill, one member of Congress said he was offered $100,000 for his son’s congressional campaign if he would change his vote. Similar examples of direct quid pro quo exchanges abound.
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