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Campaign Finance Reform

Read the remarks from:
Sen. John McCain

  • Round One

    Susan Tolchin
  • Round One

  • Remarks From Curtis Gans

    Part One Of Five

    By Curtis Gans
    March 27, 1997

    Campaign finance reform is the most overblown issue in American political life.

    Consider the following three questions:

    Q. What do Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, federal aid to education, the Civil and Voting Rights Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, among others, have in common?

    A. They were all enacted or created when people could give unlimited and undisclosed sums of money to candidates.

    Q. What do Michael Huffington, Mark Dayton, Clayton Williams, Lewis Lehrman, Rudy Boschwitz, Ronald Lauder, among many other have in common?

    A. They spent millions of dollars (often their own money), outspent their opponents by as much as five to one, and lost.

    Q. What do the overwhelming majority of journalists--including those who cover the campaign finance issue--agree upon?

    A. That politics is essentially an honorable profession, populated overwhelmingly by honorable leaders and that there is perhaps less corruption in politics now than at any time in our history.

    So much for the claims which are fueling the campaign finance craze--that campaign cash rather than citizen and leadership consensus determines major public policy, that money determines the outcome of elections or that our politics is fundamentally corrupt.

    So much perhaps also for the well-intentioned but misguided remedies that have been offered, aimed at squeezing interested money out of politics and reducing campaign costs. Those remedies--elimination of political action committees and soft money; maintenance of the current $1,000 contribution limits; establishment of a spending limit; limitations on contributions out-of-state and district and reduced-rate television time--are in each and every case pernicious to the political system. There are good reasons why this type of approach has failed to be enacted for the past two decades, why there are only three co-sponsors in the Senate to the present bill and why only 32 of 435 Congressmen were willing to sign a discharge petition for it last year.

    For the immutable facts of legal life are that no court is likely to deny the right of individuals to spend as much as they want to on their own campaigns; the right of people of like mind to organize and contribute; and the right of those who are truly independent to express their views. Which means we will have millionaire candidates, PACs and independent expenditures for the foreseeable future.

    In terms of the pending legislation, this means that: Spending Limits, if they are set too low (and the evidence is that they are), will advantage incumbents who have name-recognition, staff, constituent service, free mailing and media access and will surely drive money to less accountable independent expenditures. Low Contribution Limits may drive the "fat cat" out of politics but at the expense of office-holders spending all their free time raising money and limiting the field of candidacy to millionaires and those with large Rolodexes of $1,000 contributors; PAC Elimination or Limits will unconstitutionally undermine the right to organize, erode American pluralism and eliminate the one source of competing contributions which are clearly accountable by their nature; Out-of-District Limits would severely disadvantage poor and minority candidates from low-income districts; Soft Money Elimination would eliminate the only source of money for grassroots and party-building activity in campaigns in which 100 percent of the hard money is spent on advertising, fund-raising, staff and candidate travel; and Reduced Rate Advertising would mean that we would have an even greater glut of the garbage that is ruining our politics and driving people from the polls.

    In the name of an unattainable political purity, reformers are eliminating political possibility. They focus on potential corruption, but undermine competition, communication, participation and systematic flexibility. And that is why they will fail and why it is desirable to have a more measured and incremental approach.