CAMPAIGN finance reform has become like a rabbit-in-the-hat
magic trick. Now you see it, now you don't. And even when you see
it, it seems too fake to believe.
Tucked away deep inside President Clinton's 81-minute long State
of the Un-ion address, among a long list of to-dos and not-to-dos
for 1995, was the usual call for campaign finance reform.
Despite two decades of wrangling and public disgust, the current
"state of the art" is an ineffectual hodgepodge of restrictions
on the amount of donations from individuals, corporations, and
political action committees. Republicans and Democrats alike have
eluded the best of intentions with loopholes, "soft money" from
their parties, and bundling of donations.
Public debate about campaign finance reform has proceeded in
deep ignorance of how other democracies confront the issue. Yet a
comparative approach sheds new light on potential solutions. A
survey of rules and practices of the democracies of Western Europe,
Canada, Japan, Israel, Ausralia, and New Zealand reveals the
following approaches: (1) outright restrictions on the amount of
campaign spending for legislative races; (2) restrictions on the
amount of donations; (3) public financing of elections; and (4)
free media access to candidates and parties, coupled with a
prohibition on paid political advertisements.
Some countries combine several of these, a few use all four. The
United States is the only one of the 20 that utilizes just one of
these practices for legislative elections, namely, restrictions on
the amount of donations.
Canada, France, New Zealand, and Britain place firm limits on
candidates' campaign spending. The ceiling for legislative
candidates is $6,200 in New Zealand, $15,000 in Great Britain,
$22,000 in Canada, and $75,000 in France. Belgium, Spain, and
Israel restrict the amount of "soft money" campaign spending by
parties. In the US there are no such limits, and costs for
legislative races often exceed a half a million dollars.
Opinion polls show that the US public favors restrictions on
campaign spending, and Mr. Clinton's State of the Union message
called for Congress to "cap the cost of campaigns." Congress
actually passed such a law in 1974, but soon after an unlikely
coalition of conservatives and civil libertarians filed suit,
challenging the law as a violation of the First Amendment right to
THE subsequent US Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo,
ruled that money is speech and not subject to restriction by the
government. The court not only struck down limits on candidates'
expenses, but also opened up a gaping loophole when it did away
with limits on so-called "independent expenditures" - better
known as "soft money" - spent on behalf of a candidate rather
than donated directly to the candidate. …