This article is a response to Going Public.
Donnelly, Fine, and Millers critique of S.25, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, is by now familiarI might say well-wornand it misses the mark just as widely as it did the first time it was raised.
The general thrust of this critique is that only a concerted effort to enact a system of public financing of political campaigns will cure the many ills of our corrupt system, and that efforts to enact legislation like our bill are wasted, as we are offering only modest changes around the edges rather than substantial reform. Even allowing for possible differences in the definition of the word modest, this critique is misleading at best.
As the basis for this erroneous assertion of modesty, the authors address only parts of McCain-Feingold: the restriction on contributions from political action committees (PACs), the requirement that candidates who wish to qualify for limited free television time and other benefits raise at least 60 percent of their campaign funds from individuals in their home states, and the voluntary spending limit. Their critique does not, however, discuss the most significant provision in the bill, the ban of so-called soft-money contributions.
Unregulated and unlimited by federal law, soft-money contributions represent the worst example of the excesses and the corrupting nature of the current system of financing political campaigns, and the sums being contributed have grown rapidly. According to a January 10, 1997 FEC report, cited in a recent Congressional Research Service analysis, Republican national committees raised about $141 million for their soft-money accounts from January 1, 1995 to November 25, 1996, an increase of 183 percent over the same time period in the 1991-92 election cycle. Democratic national committees raised about $122 million during this same period, a 217 percent jump from the amount raised during the 1991-92 election cycle.
Soft-money contributions do not come from average Americans, but from the wealthiest sectors of our society. This in turn enhances the influence of the wealthy few over the political process and contributes to the erosion of the one-person/one-vote principle on which our electoral system is based. Shutting down the channel for $263 million worth of soft-money contributions is no modest change.
Donnelly, Fine, and Miller do touch on the other major provision of McCain-Feingold, the voluntary spending limits and benefits granted to candidates who adhere to those voluntary limits, but they fail to appreciate its significance. Candidates who agree to voluntarily limit their campaign spending would be eligible to receive 30 minutes of free television time during the general election period, and they would receive additional discounted television time and a discount on postage rates for campaign mailings.
To receive these benefits, candidates must voluntarily agree to three limitations on campaign spending:
They must agree voluntarily to limit their spending. Those limits would be based upon a states voting-age population. Less populous states like Vermont or Utah, for example, would have a general election spending limit of just under $1 million, while the limit for general election spending in California would rise to about $5.5 million.
They must voluntarily agree to limit the amount of personal funds spent on behalf of their candidacies. This limit would be $250,000, or 10 percent, of the general election spending limit in a particular state, whichever is less. In my home state of Wisconsin, for example, the personal spending limit would be about $150,000.
They must voluntarily agree to raise 60 percent of their overall campaign funds from individuals within their home states.
By lowering spending, voluntarily, we reduce the cost of campaigns and take some of the pressure off candidates to raise large sums of money. By requiring candidates to raise most of their money at home, we get them to focus on the people they wish to represent.
Donnelly, Fine, and Miller claim that this provision, too, amounts to only a modest change, but the analysis on which they base this dismissive opinion is flawed.
First they state that the voluntary spending limits . . . are only slightly lower than the current average. Since the voluntary spending limits in our bill are different from state to state, I dont see how an average figure means much for purposes of comparison.
Lets take a couple of examples. Under the voluntary limits provision of McCain-Feingold, the highest amount anyone running for the United States Senate could spend would be $5.5 million in the general election and $8.25 million overall for a race in California. During the last Senate race there, in 1994, Republican Michael Huffington spent nearly $30 million and Democrat Dianne Feinstein spent more than $14 million. An $8.25 million overall voluntary spending cap would be a great deal lower.
During the 1996 Massachusetts Senate race, Democrat John Kerry spent about $8.8 million and Republican William Weld spent almost $6 million. The $3 million overall voluntary spending limit under McCain-Feingold would have substantially reduced the cost of that race.
I would add that an analysis prepared by Public Citizen found nearly 75 percent of the current members of the United States Senate spent more on their most recent campaigns than they would be allowed to spend under the voluntary restrictions included in McCain-Feingold. That is meaningful change.
Donnelly, Fine, and Miller also downplay our requirement that candidates raise 60 percent of their overall funds from individuals within their home states. The authors state that the great majority of funds for these races already come from in-state. For Senators, 63 percent of their funds come from within their home states, and 78 percent of House candidates funds were raised from within their home states.
This assertion is based upon the analysis of the 1994 elections done by the Center for Responsive Politics, which looked at individual contributions of $200 or more. CRPs figures did not include PAC money or small contributions. In that analysis 20 of 35 Senators elected in 1994 raised at least 60 percent of their funds that came from that universe (individual contributions of at least $200) from within their own states. But that universe, according to CRP, accounted for only 41 percent of all campaign funds raised by Senate incumbents during 1994. Our bill reaches more broadly; it requires that at least 60 percent of a candidates entire fundraising come from individuals within the candidates home state. That is a larger universe than the one used by the CRP study, and it would amount to a more significant change in the current system than Donnelly, Fine, and Miller assert.
The authors also disparage the restrictions on PAC contributions in our bill, claiming that these restrictions would disarm labor unions and other interest groups and not touch business interests. Our PAC restrictions are not the centerpiece of this billthe soft money ban and the voluntary spending limits are; and the PAC restrictions provision, which is currently under negotiations, must be considered with the other parts of our bill.
I think its safe to say all of us who are working so hard to reform the campaign finance system agree about the extent and the gravity of the problem we face and the need for genuine, fundamental reform. The McCain-Feingold bill, the first bipartisan campaign finance reform legislation introduced in the US Senate in more than a decade, is one avenue to reform. It is not a perfect bill, in fact, it is not my ideal bill. I have authored public finance legislation in the 104th and 105th Congresses, but, frankly, given the political dynamics in CongressDemocrats and Republicans have had a long-standing philosophical divide over the merits of public financingI am not optimistic of the chances for success. In fact, Donnelly, Fine, and Miller acknowledge that the coalition that eventually got the Maine Clean Election Act passed by referendum could not move a principled reform through the Maine State Legislature. It would be no easier in Congress.
McCain-Feingold is a strong, positive step towards genuine reform. It has broad support from organizations like Common Cause, Public Citizen, the Reform Party, and the American Association of Retired Persons. It has bipartisan support in the Senate. It eliminates $400,000 in soft money contributions and provides challengers, for the first time, with the tools to run competitive campaigns against well-entrenched incumbents. It helps return the focus of the campaign to the voters and helps free candidates from the money chase. That is far more than modest reform.
Originally published in the April/ May 1997 issue of Boston Review