Why the McCain Bill Won't Get Us Very Far

By Nick Penniman and Randy Kehler

The battle over campaign finance reform has garnered much attention in recent weeks. Thanks to the high drama and intricate subplots involved in the upcoming floor debate in the U.S. Senate, that attention is bound to intensify as the much-touted McCain-Feingold-Cochran Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Act is thrown like a clay pigeon onto the skeet range of Big Money politics.

The shotguns are already loaded and the shooting stations are filled. But let's ignore all of the potential gunfire for a moment and suppose that the bill passes in the Senate without being egregiously undermined by "killer" amendments from the McConnell-Lott gang, and let's additionally assume the House passes a similar version (which it did last year), and that President Bush, even though he's already endorsed Senator Hagel's competing legislation, reluctantly signs McCain-Feingold into law.

Will the core problems that characterize today's campaign finance system - gross inequality, thinly-veiled bribery, and inevitable conflicts of interest -- be eliminated or significantly reduced?

At best, the McCain-Feingold bill would remove the most flagrant forms of political corruption: enormous, unregulated "soft" money contributions. During the 2000 election cycle, however, "soft" money comprised less than 20 percent of the overall amount of money spent. There is almost no soft money in most congressional races. And not one cent of the record-breaking $101 million raised by President Bush and his "pioneers" during the presidential primaries was soft -- it was all hard.

That's why the current debate misses the point: The focus on "soft money" and "hard money" pivots on the question of the means by which public servants are privately financed. The real question is: Should they be privately financed at all? Just because hard money comes in much smaller chunks doesn't mean it is any less destructive of political equality and representative government.

It's a sign of our increasingly moderate times that McCain-Feingold is so contentious an issue -- it won't fundamentally shift the balance of political power in our democracy. The absence of soft money won't do anything to keep qualified candidates without access to big money from being disadvantaged or unable to run. Those who do run will still be 100 percent dependent on, and thus owe favors to, those private sources of money who fuel their election and re-election campaigns. And most of this money will still come from an unrepresentative group of wealthy individuals and giant corporations (which out-contributed labor unions by 13-to-one during this last election.) In one sense, banning six-figure soft money contributions will simply make it cheaper for big-money interests to buy access and influence - which perhaps explains why a growing number of corporate CEO's have been calling for a soft money ban.

The public understands how the campaign finance system works and wants it abolished, not just re-tooled around the margins. But even if some version of the McCain bill passes, that won't happen. The sacred principles of "one person, one vote" and, in Lincoln's words, "government of, by and for the people" will remain just as distant as they are today.

The only way to maximize political equality, minimize bribery and conflicts of interest, and transform our current campaign finance system is to adopt a system of full public financing of campaigns. Some states have already made the switch, and the new voter-approved systems that have just taken effect in Maine and Arizona have produced impressive results.

It's been 25 years since reformers first insisted that public financing was necessary to clean up our campaign system. When victory didn't come, the same public financing advocates weakened the tone of their argument in favor of piecemeal reforms that only reinforced the legitimacy of privately financed campaigns. Such reforms have aroused little public support and thus have been defeated.

Had the reformers of 25 years ago continued to insist that public financing was necessary, we might have already achieved the kind of transformation of our system that is necessary. We must not continue repeating their mistake.

Regardless of whether or not a version of McCain-Feingold becomes law, once the smoke has cleared and the mirrors have been re-set, it'll be time to reframe the debate around the real issue: the private financing of our public servants. That debate would likely inspire the public to weigh in as never before and confront the Big Money marksmen with proposals for real change they might have a hard time shooting down.

Nick Penniman is the Director of the Alliance for Democracy, a non-partisan citizen advocacy organization with 60 chapters in 21 states. Randy Kehler, a long-time campaign finance expert and activist, is a senior policy advisor to the Alliance.