Will the Real Reformers Please Step Forward?

Patriotic Acts

By Josh Silver


As Election Day recedes into history, the fundraising frenzy has been tallied and the situation is bleak. Not just because the average Senator spent over $5.5 million to win election, or because the two major presidential candidates spent over $300 million in hard money, or because the amount spent in the 2000 elections is up more than a third from 1996, or that the moneyed interests that invested in their candidates are set to receive the requisite tax breaks, pork projects, emission loopholes and corporate welfare deals. That’s just another election story we’ve heard before.

The real story is the fractured and misguided reform community that stands to derail comprehensive electoral reform in Washington and across the nation. 87% of the public thinks that special interest contributions affect the voting behavior of members of Congress. Ask the average American what the solution is, and you will likely get a blank stare or you might hear ‘McCain-Feingold,’ the bill that has languished for five years in Congress, and if passed, would ban ‘soft’ money that goes to political parties to be spent mostly on issue ads that look and work like campaign ads, but because of technicalities are not controlled by election law. Problem is, according to Public Campaign, only slightly more than 20% of the money spent on the 2000 elections was soft money.

Since its introduction, McCain-Feingold has had the strong support of several good-government groups who believe that incremental campaign reform is the best first step. Since its introduction, the bill has been gutted. It lost key provisions including free air time for candidates, stricter issue advocacy definitions, and a provision banning ‘bundling’ of contributions. Now Senator McCain, with a handful of reform community allies in tow is considering doubling the allowable hard money contribution limits –– a provision that would allow far more money to flow into campaigns than does today.

If passed, McCain-Feingold will set back the reform community and the nation for years to come.  The volume of special-interest money in elections, or ‘political bribery’ as some call it, has grown to intolerable levels and the public knows it. So does Congress, and now they have a proposal that is perceived as reform, has no teeth, and if passed, will provide a tall pedestal from which legislators and reformers alike can cry victory.

After a long and painful series of setbacks and deforms on the national level since the sweeping reforms of 1974, beltway organizations like Common Cause and Public Citizen have staked their resources and reputations on McCain-Feingold. Desperate for a win, they have turned a blind eye to the law’s impotence, putting their own political agenda over that of the people. They have also turned a blind eye to the crystal clear evidence that Senator McCain is using the populist campaign reform effort as a tool to gain popularity –– not because he actually seeks reform.

In 1998, when President Clinton and then Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard announced that the FCC would develop new rules governing political ads to allow free air time for candidates, the powerful broadcast corporations and their omnipotent lobbyists halted the initiative immediately. "The FCC is clearly overstepping its authority here," McCain said. No wonder –– according to the Center for Public Integrity, McCain has collected more money (over $685,000) from media corpora-tions than any current member of Congress. To his credit, McCain is aware of the problem, and his role in it. In his own words, "Both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder. All of us are tainted by this system, myself included. I do not make any claims of piety." As well he shouldn’t.

With a case of diminished expectations and deep alienation from the constituencies they claim to represent, beltway reformers are proudly announcing that the votes are lined up to finally pass McCain-Feingold. With Bush’s need to appease McCain and the Democrats and make good on his ‘reformer with results’ platform, it is possible that even he will sign it –– the man who raised more money by far than any presidential candidate in history.

The most dangerous threat posed by McCain-Feingold’s passage is the public perception that the problem has been fixed. Politicians will wash their hands of the issue that has been a continual thorn, and the insidious role of big money in elections will continue - this time without the hindrance of public scorn or symbolic efforts by altruistic legislators. History proves that politicians will only pass reform when their backs are against the wall, such as was the case in post-Watergate 1974. Indeed, intense public awareness and resolve must exist to force the fox to put a lock on the hen house.

Consensus over what constitutes comprehensive reform has sharpened. Full public financing - the creation of a public fund to pay for qualified candidates, has become increasingly accepted by the wider reform community as the ultimate goal. At first skeptical, critics and allies have seen full public funding laws passed in four states - Massachusetts, Arizona, Maine and Vermont - and based on the 2000 elections, it seems to work. In Maine, 116 of 352 legislative candidates chose to run as publicly funded or "Clean" candidates, and of those, 54% won. More women ran than usual, and contested primaries increased by 40%. The four states are laboratories for a reform whose staunchest supporters were never positive it would work. The good news is that it does. The bad news is that many in the reform community and several well-intentioned legislators may soon pass a watered down "reform" that is laced with a poison pill that will set back comprehensive reform efforts for years.

But all is not lost. Several organizations are fighting to pass full public funding at the local, state and national level. They are also helping other issue groups - from the environment to health care to labor rights to right to choose - to educate and mobilize their members around the issue while supporting initiative and legislative efforts in the states to pass reform. And fight they must. The 2000 elections showed how important grassroots support is for this issue. Ballot initiatives for public funding were rejected by voters in Oregon and Missouri as business-backed opponents over-simplified the proposals as "tax boondoggles" and played on the measures’ vulnerability to the ten-second sound byte.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Congress spent over $963 million to achieve office this year –– the best evidence that America needs reform more than ever. Not the kind of symbolic reform offered in camera-ready sound bytes by beholden candidates, but real, intelligent reform that if passed, will retake our government from wealthy special interests and see elections pursued by candidates whose primary interest is promoting real legislation for real people, not the moneyed elite.