FOLLOW THE MONEY : Why Campaigns Should Be Publicly Financed
Mandle, Jay, Commonweal
What would happen if the United States funded the Defense Department through private contributions? Would those sections of the country that contribute more to defense be better protected than those that gave less? If the interstate highway system were paid for by the donations of private citizens, how likely is it that the nation's transportation system would serve the entire country and not just those who foot the bill?
The answers to such questions are obvious. Few would doubt that if these services were privately financed, their benefits would be biased toward the funders. The interests of the rest of the population would at best be an afterthought. Damaging as such a system would be, what then is to be said about a political system in which the wealthy provide the bulk of campaign financing? Certainly it would not be a stretch to say that a political system paid for by the affluent is one that will be disproportionately responsive to the well-off and less attentive to the needs of the rest of the population.
Funding for elections in a democracy should not depend on an economic elite. When the rich pay for electoral campaigns, the substance of politics is confined to the issues and policies that wealthy funders approve of. To be sure, the electorate gets to vote. But the choices presented to voters are, at best, those that are acceptable to the wealthy. At worst, of course, such a system is simply corrupt.
Almost all economically developed democracies have tried to reduce the importance of private money in elections. A study by the Center for a New Democracy and the Center for Responsive Politics showed that only the United States, Ireland, and Switzerland do not either provide public financing for candidates to the national legislature, or restrict the expenditures of such candidates. Further, the United States is alone in not providing free media time to office seekers. Presidential candidates in this country do have the option of funding their campaigns with public money (Albert Gore chose public funding, while George W. Bush relied exclusively on private donations). In addition, four states offer significant public financing for state offices and several cities do the same for local races. Nevertheless, the United States lags behind virtually all of the developed world in the effort to democratize elections.
The dominance of the rich is now so blatant that even politicians who benefit from it are ashamed. The McCain-Feingold Bill (Shays-Meehan in the House of Representatives) is a well-intentioned effort at reform. This legislation imposes a ban on "soft money" payments to national parties, and restricts "issue advocacy" by unions, corporations, and other interest groups. It is not hard to understand what motivates these limitations. Unregulated donations made for "party building" easily find their way into electoral campaigns. Similarly, issue-advocacy ads have become an only slightly disguised means of circumventing current campaign contribution limits.
There are elements of McCain-Feingold, however, that raise concerns. The first and most obvious is that, as passed by the Senate, the legislation doubles the permitted level of "hard money" contributions. Obviously this provision--perhaps necessary to secure Senate passage--is a concession that chips away at the principle that private money in elections should be curtailed. Two other aspects of the legislation are also worrisome. First, its passage is likely to result in increased, not decreased, public cynicism because, in the end, the legislation's restrictions will not do very much to rid the system of its pro-wealth bias. News reports have already appeared detailing how the major political parties plan to circumvent the law's intent. The prevailing view is that with the banning of soft money, political action committees (PACs) will once again serve as the conduit of choice for the wealthy. Finding other loopholes in the law has already begun. …