Campaign Finance Blues

By Mann, Thomas E. | Brookings Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Campaign Finance Blues


Mann, Thomas E., Brookings Review


For all the talk about the pressing need to clean up the role of money in American elections, the simple reality is that consensus on campaign finance reform is nowhere in sight. House Republican leaders intend to schedule floor debate on the issue in July, but as yet have no compelling strategy for passing a bill. In the Senate a small bipartisan band has threatened to force action on a bill introduced by Senators Russell Feingold (D-WI) and John McCain (R-AZ), but lukewarm support on both sides of the aisle combined with adamant opposition by several senators make the odds of success remote. The intense competition for majority control of Congress in the upcoming election may well raise the stakes in reforming campaign finance, but the resulting political pressures are more likely to generate blame than legislation.

The deficiencies of the system by which we finance congressional campaigns are serious - and all too clear.

First, the high cost of running for Congress shrinks the pool of able individuals willing to become candidates, limiting the field to those with personal wealth or the stomach for nonstop fundraising.

Second, conflicts of interest, real and perceived, result when members seek and receive campaign contributions from people and organizations with direct interest in matters pending in Congress. One needn't swallow whole the populist version of this critique - that politicians are routinely bought and sold by special interests - to see merit in the argument that monied interests are more likely than ordinary constituents to attract the attention and energy of members of Congress.

Third, the way we finance congressional campaigns fails to generate enough information about the choice of candidates in House and Senate races across the country. Most Americans know precious little about their representatives in Congress; they know even less about the men and women who challenge them. While some inequality in resources between incumbents and challengers is inevitable, campaigns have no hope of fulfilling their proper role in our democracy if they do not convey to the electorate the most basic information about the candidates and their platforms.

Identifying the problems with the campaign finance system is infinitely easier than fashioning solutions. The constitutional ruling that equates campaign spending with speech imposes clear limits to what is permissible. No measure regulating money in campaigns can or should fully compensate for the inequalities between incumbents and challengers and among individuals and groups in society. Banish every private dollar from campaigns and inequalities would persist. Reducing the amount of "interested money" in congressional campaigns and slowing the money chase requires identifying new, acceptable sources of funds that candidates can more easily tap. …

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