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Campaign Finance Reform

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Sen. John McCain

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    Susan Tolchin
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  • Remarks From Curtis Gans

    Part Three Of Five

    By Curtis Gans
    April 2, 1997

    Last year, Jack Souza, the recently retired minority chief counsel for the Senate Rules Committee, sought Anthony Corrado--the same person Sen. McCain referred to in his initial offering--to testify on behalf of the McCain-Feingold bill. After Corrado declined, Souza said, "You know it's very hard to get any reputable academic to support this bill."

    That's because McCain-Feingold is flawed in both its conception of the problem and its solution. And since no one in this discussion seems to be responding directly to what anyone else is saying, I think I will devote this piece to why my colleagues' conception of the problem is wrong; devote the next piece to why the remedies that have been offered are wrong; and devote my last to what the real problems are and how one might deal with them.

    Let's look at some of the myths:

    Money wins elections: It is not simply the millionaire candidates like Michael Huffington, Clayton Williams, Mark Dayton, Rudy Boschwitz and others who spent millions on their own campaigns, outspent their opponents by as much as five to one and lost that disproves this theory. For the past several years, my committee has been tracking the spending of those challengers who ousted incumbents. That study found that the vast majority of the challengers were outspent by their incumbent opponents. Yet, they won. And that, in turn, supports the overwhelming majority of those who have studied this issue who have concluded it is not how much any candidate spends that determines elections, but whether the competition has enough to get his or her message across. Which is to say that money does not win elections, but lack of money may lose elections. And it is to say that conditions, record and message are much more important to electoral result than money.

    Special interests dominate politics: First, there is no such thing as a special interest. A "special interest" is an interest that does not agree with your position. There are, in fact, only interests--different and competing: environmentalists versus timber; doctors versus hospitals versus insurers versus patients, etc.-- all of whom get heard and from which public policy is formed. This is called pluralism and it is and has been a healthy part of the American political tradition.

    Money buys public policy: As I pointed out in my original piece, most major legislation--the whole edifice of the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier and Great Society, plus Richard Nixon's contributions of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality and then Occupational Safety and Health Administration--were enacted when people could give unlimited and undisclosed contributions. Major public policy is determined by leadership and citizen consensus and not campaign cash. But there are pieces of legislation--such as the telecommunications bill that Sen. McCain mentioned--in which a public interest is not so clearly defined and a majority of the players in the debate-- Andrew Schwatrzman and Jerry Berman, excepted--have a self-interest in the outcome. That might be a problem were the interests uniform. But in this debate cable was opposed to satellite which was opposed to broadcast; long distance carriers were opposed by local carriers, etc. And there was a public interest presence to be felt, in the legislators and staff who could and did sort out the competing interests. Which is the way it has been and probably should be.

    If money doesn't buy public policy, it buys access: True, as far as it goes. But there are several sources of access. Personal friendship with a leader buys access. Long-time and loyal support buys access. Fame buys access. And grass-roots organization also buys access. To take a case in point, the welfare reform effort of Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of the early 1970s was defeated, not by money interests, but by an organized and highly vocal groups of welfare mothers who worked on the conscience of potential Democratic supporters. And even the access that major contributions buys may get one a night in the Lincoln Bedroom or a seat in the President's box at the Kennedy Center, but it does not buy public policy remedy, because for almost every contribution there is a contribution from a disagreeing source.

    Politics is corrupt: Ask any reporter who has been covering politics for more than 15 years and they will tell you that there is less corruption now than then; that our politicians are perhaps less visionary but considerably more honorable than they were then and however unseemly the current fund-raising excesses appear, there is considerably less influence bought now than then.

    People give money to buy influence: While some individuals and groups give money to get their point of view heard, the vast majority give, as National Public Radio recently reported, to support the parties and candidates who more nearly share their ideas. That's healthy in a system that for the foreseeable future will be dependent on private money. Nor does money buy a point of view. Rep. Barney Frank is not a liberal because he gets liberal money. Liberal money finds him because he is a liberal. The same is true for Rep. Tom DeLay and conservative money.

    All of which is to suggest that we ought not to let myth drive public policy.