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Campaign Finance Reform

Read the remarks from:
Sen. John McCain

  • Round Four
  • Remarks From Curtis Gans

    Part Four Of Five

    By Curtis Gans
    April 3, 1997

    If the perceived problem of campaign finance reform is greatly overdrawn by both the media and those leading the reform effort, most remedies that have been proposed are profoundly dangerous and in almost all cases would create a system worse than the flawed one we have now.

    The aim of the McCain-Feingold proposal is to squeeze, as much as possible, interested money from politics by limiting campaign spending, contributions, out-of-state and district donations; eliminating Political Action Committees (PACs) and "soft-money", and by providing grants of free and reduced rate television time (and mailings) and money to those who abide by spending limits. The judgment in this corner is that each and every one of the provisions is pernicious to the political system.

    The central fact of political life and legal life is that no court in the lifetime of my 10-year old child is going to say that an individual cannot contribute as much of his or her money as he or she wants to their own campaign; that the like-minded cannot organize and contribute to campaigns; and that groups with positions on issues cannot express those opinions during a campaign. Which is to say that we will have millionaire candidates, PACs and independent expenditures for the foreseeable future. And it is against that backdrop that the McCain et al proposals should be judged:

    Spending Limits: It has a nice sound. Level the playing field so that everyone spends no more than a certain amount. But what if those limits advantage incumbents who, by virtue of their office, have certain things that have considerable communication value, including name recognition, staff, constituent service, free mail and media access. There are various studies that show the level of limits proposed would give incumbents an unfair advantage. For instance, of those challengers who successfully ousted incumbents in the U.S. Senate between 1978 and 1994, fully 60 percent of them had to exceed the proposed spending limits to win their races. Most of them were outspent by their incumbent opponents but they won because they had enough money to overcome the perks and get their message across. Any system should be designed to insure that competition is possible.

    Perhaps even more importantly, once you impose spending limits you will drive money to less accountable and constitutionally protected independent expenditures and in reality, do nothing about the problem at all-- except to make it less accountable.

    Contribution Limits: They sounded nice when enacted in 1974. Get rid of the "fat cat" large contributor by establishing a $1,000 contribution limit for individuals, $5,000 for PACs. But the $1,000 is worth less than $300 now and is the principle reason why candidates are spending all their time raising money rather than communicating with voters. They are also the principle reason for the evasions of the limits through abuse of soft money and bundling provisions. They limit the field to those who are either millionaires or have large Rolodexes of substantial contributors. And deny the system the risk capital for serious challenge.

    PAC Elimination: PACs are not the political equivalent of the devil incarnate. They are the expression of organized America, in a time when there is very little organization. They represent American pluralism and its competing and very different interests. Their contributions are vital to the political system--to providing enough money for candidacy; and unlike individual contributions, their point of view can be clearly identified and therefore are more accountable. Any attempt to eliminate them would be unconstitutional. Any attempt to emasculate them would be wrong.

    Out-of-District Limits: It may seem that it would be nice to not only have the votes but also the money come from hometown folks. But such a list would severely disadvantage poor and minority candidates in low-income districts. The Democrats have several of those. The Republicans don't have trouble raising money anywhere. This is a partisan idea that should be rejected as such.

    Soft Money Elimination: Soft money is the unlimited amount an individual, group, union or corporation may give a state or local party for "party development" and "grassroots" activities. It has been abused in the last three elections (1992, 1994, 1996) insofar as it has not been used for those activities but rather for "generic" advertising which does not mention a candidate but is not different from the rest of the garbage that is put on the air. But it should also be noted that the actual campaigns (and in this case I'll use Senatorial campaigns), funded by regulated hard money, spend 60 percent of their budgets for televised advertising, 30 percent for fund-raising and the balance for candidate travel and staff. Soft-money remains the only source for any grassroots and party building activity and its elimination means that the grassroots will wither and die.

    Reduced Rate Ads: While this might marginally reduce the cost of campaigns, its more likely impact is to increase the glut of advertising that biennially pollutes our airwaves and drives people from he polls.

    In the name of political purity, well-meaning reformers are undermining political possibility. They are doing the equivalent of attempting to stop male adultery by abolishing women.

    Our system will, for the foreseeable future be largely privately funded, and the important thing is to insure that there is enough money in the system to insure competition, communication and systemic flexibility. The McCain-Feingold approach undermines all of these.

    In Conclusion

    Having debunked both the claims of reformers with respect to the problem of campaign finance reform and the principle piece of legislation to achieve reform, it seems incumbent to me to present what I see as the flaws in the system and the ways those problems may be remedied.

    The major problems with the present system are:

    1. Access: Under the present system and because of the extraordinarily low contribution limits, access to the candidacy is limited to those who have substantial amounts of personal money which they can spend on their campaign and those who have large rolodexes of potential $250 - $1,000 contributors. This, in turn, inhibits competition.

    2. Access II: While there is less corruption in the political system than ever before and there are many ways-personal friendship, loyalty, fame, organization-beyond money by which someone can gain access to political leaders, money does buy some access (even if that access does not buy major public policy and is countered by both other forms of access and competing contributions). At times, that access leads to unreasonable demands such as the Charles Keating case.

    3. Abuse of Soft Money: Soft money has been defended as necessary to provide funds for grassroots activity and party development. In the last three elections, the overwhelming majority of soft money has been used for political advertising which serves to undermine grassroots activity and party development. As such soft money has served not as a positive contribution to politics, but as an evasion of existing limits in campaign law.

    4. Anomalies In Existing Law: One reason that soft money has been abused is that the current laws, particularly with respect to spending limits in Presidential campaigns, have had differential and unfair effects on candidates. When the primary season in 1996 reached a decision, Bob Dole, who had competition in the primaries, was under a 35-2 spending disadvantage to President Clinton, who did not have any challenge. So, the Republican Party filled the gap with soft money "generic" advertising, which were different in kind from the other garbage which gluts the airways only insofar as they did not ask to vote for anything but the party.

    5. Accountability: Under existing law, independent expenditure groups who put on "issue" advertising need not report those expenses to the Federal Election Commission if they do not mention a candidate's name in their ads. That meant in 1996 that millions of dollars in expenditures went unreported and the public was denied a true picture of what and how money was spent.

    6. Use: What is driving the cost of campaigns and driving down the participation of American citizens is the biennial arms race of attack ads that undermine speech and accountability and destroy public faith in the candidates and the political process as a whole. It is no accident that the costs of campaigns in constant dollars has increased four-fold in the last three decades and that voter turnout has declined 25 percent in 36 years, the longest and largest such slide in the nation's history.

    7. Federal Election Commission: The Federal Election Commission neither has the resources nor the structure to effectively administer campaign finance law and has been largely ineffectual in addressing violations.

    The remedies for these problems are, except in one instance, are narrower then McCain-Feingold but more pinpointed to the real problems.

    • Increase and diversify the supply of money by lifting either completely or substantially the contribution limits on individuals and PACs, but supplementing private moneys with public moneys in order to provide seed money for candidates and insulation for office-holders.

    • Enhance disclosure by electronic filing and sorting and by putting all expenditures on the record, including independent expenditures.

    • Eliminate the self-defeating contribution and spending limits in Presidential campaigns.

    • Ban the use of soft money for generic advertising as contrary for the stated purpose of that money.

    • Strengthen and restructure the FEC so that it can function effective.

    • And cease being the only democracy in the world which does not regulate political advertising. There are three ways that this can be accomplished effectively and Constitutionally. 1. Ban all such ads on television 2. Require broadcasters to sell time in blocks of no less than two minutes, which would permit viewers to shut them off and presumably to provide more substance; or 3. For ads of less than two minutes-the spot ads that are the staple of the modern campaign-require that the purchaser or an identified spokesperson speak to the camera for the duration of the ad, thus allowing people to buy whatever time they want to say whatever they want, but in the process returning the advertising to speech and accountability.

    There is one final thing I want to say before signing off. Back during the war in Vietnam, Sen. Joseph Clark an opponent of that war was asked, "Why don't you support your President?" He responded, "I do support my President. I only wish I could support him more."

    I respect Sen. McCain for his valiant service to the nation in Vietnam. I respect Sen. McCain for his leadership in trying to put that war behind us through the recognition of the present Vietnam. I respect Sen. McCain for being the type of sensible, articulate leader that this nation needs and that is all too rare in his party nowadays. I just wish he would pick either another issue or another set of remedies for the issue he has chosen to take leadership on.