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
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
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.