You Break It, You Pay for It: How Special Interests Can Serve the Cause of Campaign Finance Reform

By Weinstein, Paul, Jr. | The Washington Monthly, November 2002 | Go to article overview
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You Break It, You Pay for It: How Special Interests Can Serve the Cause of Campaign Finance Reform


Weinstein, Paul, Jr., The Washington Monthly


DESPITE THE WIDELY HAILED PASsage of the McCain-Feingold bill earlier this year--the first campaign finance-reform measure in a generation--it's no secret that money still dominates our elections. When you consider all that it takes to run for public office at the national level these days--expensive political consultants, pollsters, and the growing cost of producing and broadcasting television and radio ads--the cost of a campaign adds up quickly. And that cost is rising. House and Senate candidates spent approximately $2 billion during the 2000 election, and all indications are that the tab for the 2004 elections will far surpass that. As of early October, President Bush had already shattered previous fundraising records by collecting more than $140 million.

As campaign spending has mushroomed, special interests have purchased ever-greater influence. Last year, for example, Congress passed a $73-billion farm-bailout bill. And while farmers are an important political constituency, the lion's share of the bill's benefits didn't accrue to the small independent farmers who need it most--they went to the massive agribusiness farms that are, not coincidentally, among the most generous special interests when it comes to giving cash to candidates and their political action committees (PACs).

There are many proposals to fix our campaign-finance system, but each has serious flaws. Many European nations successfully limit the amount of money campaigns can spend, but in the United States, the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo declared this practice unconstitutional. There's the idea of banning or capping contributions--but as we've discovered, these are easily circumvented. Already, lawyers for both parties are scrambling to find loopholes in the ban on "soft money" that was the leading provision of McCain-Feingold, intended to prohibit unregulated large contributions to political parties. The latest innovation is to direct soft-money contributions from business, labor unions, and other wealthy special interests to state party organizations (which can still receive soft money donations) and to establish "mini-parties"--front organizations set up on behalf of national parties to evade the soft-money ban.

Then there's public financing. Since the Watergate scandal, public interest groups have championed the idea of publicly financed campaigns, in which candidates receive taxpayer money in exchange for adhering to voluntary campaign spending limits. (Only presidential candidates can qualify for public funding--paid for by the $3 box you can check off on your tax return.) In the past, this helped to level the playing field between incumbents and challengers: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush all lost their reelection bids to publicly financed candidates.

Reformers have long wanted to take the next logical step and employ public financing not just in presidential contests but in House and Senate races, too. Purely as a matter of policy, the idea makes sense. In addition to limiting the influence of special interests in Congress, it would allow lawmakers and candidates to spend more time on the stump talking about issues, and less time on the phone dialing for dollars. It would also eliminate much of the need for sitting presidents to spend every third day traveling around the country attending congressional fundraisers (a practice Bill Clinton perfected and George W. Bush has taken to new levels of excess). Unfortunately, no one has ever come up with a politically practical way to pay for public financing of congressional general election campaigns. The roughly $250 million raised by the voluntary check-off barely covers the cost of presidential races, and, though the amount was increased from $1 to $3 to make up for the declining number of contributions, the percentage of taxpayers who choose to contribute has dropped from a high of almost 29 percent in 1980 to 12.

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