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Solutions For Campaign Finance ReformBy Melvin Dubnick
PoliticsNow Classroom, Mar. 26, 1997
Campaign finance reform is currently the number one item on the national political agenda--and it looks like an issue that won't go away. For reporters, it's an issue that stirs the investigative juices and generates daily headlines. For politicians on both ends of the party spectrum, it's an issue that threatens to generate even greater tumult in the world of campaigning. For some policy makers, it's an issue raising fundamental questions about the integrity--and future--of the American political system. For students of American government, it's a opportunity to gain greater insight into electoral politics and the realities of influence in Washington.
Making sense of campaign finance reform and associated issues isn't easy because the central questions are complex and intertwined. Where does the money come from? Who raises it? How is it raised? And for whom?
Are we talking about lots of money donated by a few people? If so, who are they and why do they give so much to political campaigns? Are they merely expressing their political belief through generous contributions? Or are they expecting something more from those they help? Do recipients of those contributions live up to those expectations? If so, what are the implications of this quid pro quo for the American political system?
And if we conclude that campaign financing needs to be reformed, what kinds of changes are required--and at what cost?
The participants in this Political Exchange on campaign finance reform will no doubt touch on many of these questions. But first, let's lay out some of the basics to help you make your way through the discussion.
To understand the debate, you need to know about the current laws and regulations governing campaign finance at the national level. Our present system can be traced back to the early years of this century, but it was legislation passed in the wake of the Watergate scandals of the Nixon administration that created the basic rules now in place. In 1974, Congress passed and President Gerald Ford signed amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act that imposed stringent limits on donors and donations and created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce them. In a 1976 decision, Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court declared parts of the 1974 laws unconstitutional. Equating campaign contributions with free speech, the Court threw out limits on candidate expenditures (unless the candidate accepts public financing), limits on contributions by candidates and their families to their own campaigns, and limits on "independent expenditures" (that is, election spending not coordinated with candidates or their committees).
The law was amended in 1976 to take the Buckley decision into account. But perhaps the most significant amendments came in 1979 when Congress permitted unlimited contributions by individuals and groups (including corporations and unions) to political parties for state and local campaigns (where allowed under state and local laws), "party building" activities, and voter registration drives. The Federal Election Commission soon allowed national party committees to raise unlimited funds to develop non-federal "building fund" accounts. Thus was born the category we now talk of as "soft money."
For most of the 1980s, the distinction between soft and "hard" (direct contributions to the a candidate's campaign) money was not abused. But starting in 1988 and expanding in the 1992 elections, soft money became a major means for circumventing campaign finance limitations on direct contributions to individual campaigns. By 1996, the use of soft money had become the critical factor in funding presidential and congressional campaign efforts. In 1996 the Democrats raised $128 million of soft money, while the Democrats raised $138 million--all totaled, three times the amount raised by both parties in 1992.
Who gave soft money? According to Common Cause's analysis of contributions of $10,000 or more, 93 percent of the GOP money came from corporations and executives while 74 percent of the Democratic money came from similar sources. Three unions provided $3.5 million of the Democratic Party's soft money--and two major tobacco companies accounted for nearly $3.7 million of the Republican funds.
How was the money used? For party-building? Technically, the answer is yes. But a great deal of that money was spent on advertisements and other activities that seemed to favor a particular candidate in particular races.
According to the advocates of reform, soft money isn't the only problem with the current system. The time consuming and demeaning search for direct contributions--often called "dialing for dollars"--was a critical factor in the decision of many prominent senators and representatives to forego reelection last year. But it was the role or soft money in the 1996 election has helped create a widespread call for action. Reports of the various means used to raise these funds--many considered "improper" if not illegal--has added fuel to the fire.
The problem is so great, that even those who feed the soft money machine--the major corporate donors--are supporting the call for reform. A recent Harris poll of corporate executives conducted for BusinessWeek provides some surprising results. The survey of 400 senior executives at major corporations indicates that 70 percent of them contributed an average of $3,278. Do they believe the system needs reform? A staggering 97 percent answered yes--and 68 percent called for "fundamental" changes!
Soft money and other perceived problems of campaign finance reform are the focus of attention of this Political Exchange. The participants take distinct positions on the issue. Republican Senator John McCain from Arizona is leading the charge for reform as co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold bill. Political scientist and author Susan Tolchin regards the call for reform as symptomatic of a more fundamental problem facing the political system--public anger and disgust with politics and government. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, offers a different view and challenges the basic assumptions put forward by the advocates of reform. For him, the reach for political purity through reform is the real problem.
The diverse perspectives of each of our participants promises to make this an interesting and informative Exchange.