Campaign Finance Reform: Dead on Arrival?

Campaign fundraising is well on its way to becoming the blockbuster issue of the 105th Congress. Each day brings new revelations about the aggressive and shameless tactics used by the Clinton administration to press supporters for large, soft-money contributions to finance a preemptive television advertising campaign in 1995. The Democratic National Committee twice announced that it had returned a slew of contributions that were either illegal or could not be confirmed as proper while pressure intensified for the appointment of yet another independent counsel.

Legitimate concerns about whether laws were broken in the 1996 campaign may in the end pale in significance compared with the noxious practices that were permitted by law. Both parties engaged in an orgy of soft-money raising that made a mockery of federal limits on individual contributions and prohibitions on gifts from corporations and labor unions. In addition, parties and outside groups exploited the loophole of “issue advocacy” to run thousands of negative political spots financed by party soft money, union dues, and corporate treasuries. Finally, parties took advantage of the Supreme Court’s Colorado decision affirming their right to make unlimited independent expenditures by setting up shell “autonomous” operations that unleashed massive negative attacks on their adversaries.

One might have thought that the stench of scandal and the widely acknowledged collapse of the regulatory regime for campaign finance would improve prospects for reform, but the reality is otherwise: if not dead on arrival, campaign finance reform is surely on life support. The Republican leadership in Congress appears singularly interested in focusing public attention on the misbegotten behavior of the Clinton campaign, not in restructuring the way campaigns are financed. Congressional Democrats seem to want an attractive political position to defend in the 1998 midterm election, not a change in campaign finance law. And the reform community is itself severely fragmented, showing no sign of seeking a consensus that might facilitate an agreement on Capitol Hill.

Some reformers seem bent on pursuing a constitutional amendment that would give Congress the power to limit spending in elections. Other have mounted a jurisprudential challenge to Buckley, hoping to persuade the Supreme Court to reconsider its entire constitutional reasoning on campaign finance law. Yet others have launched a national campaign to spread the Maine Clean Money Option, a system of voluntary full public financing, to other states and eventually to Washington. Whatever their particular merits, none of these initiatives offers any promise of bearing fruit during the next several years. The one reform vehicle that is designed for consideration by the 105th Congress, the McCain-Feingold bill championed by Common Cause but subjected to a withering critique by other reform stalwarts, faces seemingly insurmountable odds in the face of the almost united opposition of Senate Republicans.

If reform is to happen in the 105th Congress, two developments are prerequisite: a devastating set of public hearings that generate widespread bipartisan embarrassment and an agreement among reform groups that sensible incremental steps taken now can lay the base for more transforming change in the future. To advance the latter, four colleagues (Norman Ornstein, Paul Taylor, Michael Malbin, and Anthony Corrado) and I have proposed a package of reforms that deals with some of the most egregious flaws in the system in 1996 and that has some reasonable prospect of attracting bipartisan support. Instead of voluntary spending limits, new restrictions on PACs, and direct public financing, we propose to ban soft money by eliminating nonfederal accounts at national party committees; limit the blatant political abuse of “issue advocacy” by defining as a campaign ad any paid communication with the general public that uses a federal candidate s name or likeness within 90 days of a primary or general election; provide free television and radio time to candidates and parties by creating a national political time bank with deposits from every television and radio station in the country; encourage small contributions through a 100 percent tax credit; and strengthen disclosure and enforcement through mandatory electronic filing and restructuring of the Federal Elections Commission.

These are achievable objectives for the 105th Congress, if we can only embarrass the politicians and unify the reformers.