Campaign Finance Reform

By Sifry, Micah L. | Tikkun, March/April 1999 | Go to article overview

Campaign Finance Reform


Sifry, Micah L., Tikkun


Jews have long understood the importance of opening up American democracy to all. As Leonard Fein writes in Where Are We? The Inner Life of America's Jews, "both the welfare of the Jews and the condition of justice depend on the health of liberal, democratic pluralism." Thus the Jewish community has stood in the forefront of struggles for civil and equal rights, as well as many other significant social movements, out of a combination of moral and selfinterest. Jews have acted from the belief that the best defense against social instability, the breeding ground of antiSemitism, "is a politics that speaks to the needs of those who have been left out or left behind, a politics of inclusion."

But today we have a politics of exclusion-based on wealth. A tiny fraction of the population participates in the financing of campaigns, while the bulk of the citizenry is reduced to playing the role of spectators. That's a problem because, as we all know, in the current system of privately financed election campaigns money matters more than anything else. It determines who runs a serious campaign for office, what sorts of issues are raised, and how elected officials govern. Individuals can't run for office if they don't have a personal bankroll or connections to large numbers of wealthy donors. Our representatives are consumed by the money chase, becoming part-time legislators and full-time fund-raisers.

It is an open secret that Jewish donors participate in the current system in numbers far beyond their proportion in the population. According to J.J. Goldberg, author of Jewish Power, "Jews are one of the largest sources of Democratic financing, donating or raising as much as half of the party's presidential campaign funds." According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the leading watchdog group on money in politics, pro-Israel PACs and individuals gave $4.2 million to members of Congress in the 1996 cycle, more than any other single-issue group.

Wealth has fed a sense of Jewish political security in the United States. So let's not beat around the bush: if we change the system, will Jewish security diminish? Will Jewish influence on elected officials or on the issues Jews care most about lessen? No. A level financial playing field (we're not talking about unilateral disarmament here) can only invigorate other forms of political participation. "The Jewish community, because it votes disproportionately, volunteers disproportionately and runs for office disproportionately, will do well in any system," says Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Jews in America have flourished in politics because of their engagement, activism, and the integrity of the causes they espouse. Thus, any reforms that make our political system more democratic and pluralistic should be "good for the Jews."

Is there any doubt that the system needs fundamental Ireform? This was the first billion-dollar-plus congressional election in American history-and the final campaign reports aren't even in yet. Senate and House candidates raised at least $575.3 million through October 14-an 11 percent increase over the last mid-term election in 1994. The various party committees reported raising $291.5 million in hard money, almost 25 percent more than they gathered in 1994. And both parties roped in $172.5 million in soft money contributions, a whopping 112.4 percent increase in their receipt of these huge, unregulated donations over the previous mid-term cycle. That adds up to more than a billion dollars, without even counting the additional money independently spent by various interest groups hoping to influence the election returns.

The vast bulk of this money flowed to congressional incumbents, who-not surprisingly-did very well on Election Day. In the House, where the disparity in funding between challengers and incumbents is typically huge, over 98 percent won re-election. More than 60 percent of House districts saw one candidate outspending the other by a margin of 10:1 or more. …

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