Cleaning Up Elections

The Nation, September 17, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Cleaning Up Elections


The terrain of the battle for campaign finance reform has now shifted to the House of Representatives and, less noticed but more important, to the Massachusetts legislature. Two approaches to reform are at issue. One limits the ways that private money can be given and spent in elections; the other holds that replacing big donations with public financing is the only way to cleanse a rotten system.

In the House, reformers are collecting signatures on a discharge petition that would force a floor debate and a vote on the Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill, which the GOP leadership buried in the last session. They need 218 signatures; Common Cause had tallied 205 signatures on the petition, including fifteen Republicans.

House passage of Shays-Meehan would be a significant victory for Congressional reformers, but it will not win the war against the big money corrupting the system. Like McCain-Feingold, its Senate counterpart, Shays-Meehan bans soft money, but it also doubles the amount of hard-money contributions wealthy special interests can make. US PIRG reports that had these changes been in effect for the 2000 elections, the top 144 lobbying firms in Washington would have been prevented from giving $1.4 million in soft money, but they could have legally given $8.7 million more in hard money.

The only way to achieve meaningful campaign finance reform is through full public financing. That's why Massachusetts, where a Clean Elections bill is currently bottled up in the legislature, is so important. Like similar legislation already implemented in Maine, Arizona and Vermont, Clean Elections would enable public officials to run fully funded, viable campaigns for office without having to depend on private donors to any significant degree. Under Clean Elections laws, candidates who agree to raise little to no private money and abide by strict spending limits can qualify for equal grants of full public financing for their campaigns. Additional matching funds are given if a participating candidate faces a high-spending opponent. Prospective candidates qualify by collecting a fairly large number of very small (around $5) contributions.

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