The idea of fair elections has politicians running for cover. By shabby legislative ploys and disingenuous public statements, elected officials are trying to undermine campaign finance reform.
Fear of fair elections motivates members of both major political parties. In the US Congress, a very modest bill sponsored by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feigned (D-Wis.) to ban ìsoft moneyî in federal elections has passed the Senate; but a similar bill sponsored by Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) of Connecticut and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) is stalled in the House.
Soft money is a loophole that enables wealthy individuals as well as corporate and labor political action committees to launder financial contributions to political candidates through political parties. Federal law limits the amount of money they can give to candidates. Soft money is the means by which they can channel money to candidates in contravention of the statutory limits. In the 2000 election campaign, more than $500 million was funneled to federal candidates as soft money.
In previous congressional sessions, the bill passed in the House but Republican Senate leaders used parliamentary maneuvers to prevent it from coming to a vote. This session the bill passed the Senate but Republican House leaders stopped a legislative tally.
[After this went to press, Shays and Meehan achieved the 218 signatures needed on a discharge petition to force a House vote.]
In Massachusetts, Democratic legislative leaders are foiling reform. In 1998, Massachusetts' voters, by an overwhelming 2 to 1 margin, passed a Clean Election referendum giving statewide candidates the option of running for office with full public financing. Like all Clean Money legislation, candidates who want public financing have to 1) prove popular support by raising a specific number of small ìqualifying contributionsî and 2) agree to accept no additional contributions from private funders. The law, which is supposed to go into effect in the upcoming election -- and already has the support of the Democratic candidate for governor Warren Tolman and the Republican candidate for attorney-general Evan Slavitt -- is being gutted by Democratic House Speaker Tom Finneran who has refused to allow the legislature to appropriate money to finance the bill.
Backers of the bill insist that Finneran has two choices: either allow the legislature to repeal the law or fund it. Finneran won't allow a vote for repeal, because the law is too popular. Apparently he won't allow it to be funded because it will jeopardize incumbents like himself who are dependent on special-interest money. The case is now being argued in the Massachusetts courts.
Vermont's Governor Howard Dean is emulating boss Finneran in wanting to de-fund Vermont's own Clean Money law. This law, passed in 1997, allows the option of public financing for statewide candidates who raise the required qualifying contributions and who agree to take no additional private money. Facing a budget deficit, Dean wants to take 99% of the $1.3 million set aside for public funding and put it back into the general state budget. What's left, the $8,000 collected in taxpayer check-offs, is not enough to provide any public funding in the 2002 elections.
The rhetoric behind this is cheap and easy. Instead of giving money to politicians, the governor is going to fund programs that help people. That sounds good but it misrepresents the options. Campaign finance reform is not just another issue. It's a process issue, a democratic reform that makes other reforms possible. As long as candidates are enabled to take special-interest money, the make-up of government will continue to be tilted towards politicians who know how to raise money but arenÇt necessarily good legislators. And the legislative agenda will reflect the agenda of those who give the money. The great majority of people who canÇt afford to ply their legislators with gifts of money will forever be shortchanged when it comes to the fine-print of legislative directives.
The Vermont bill is flawed but instead of gutting it, as Dean proposes to do, it should be tightened. Certain aspects of the bill, but not the public financing component, are under constitutional challenge. The amount of money a political party can give to a candidate is under appeal in federal court. The existing Clean Money law may be too skimpy in this regard. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group (www.vpirg.org) and the Vermont Citizens Coalition for Clean Elections (VCCCE), backers of the bill, are willing to raise the limit to satisfy the courts.
The limit on the amount of money candidates can spend during the campaign is also under appeal. Without a limit on expenditure, privately-funded candidates can raise as much money as they want and seriously outspend their Clean Money opponents. One way around this, as proposed by VPIRG and VCCCE, is to do what Clean Money legislation provides for in Maine: there the Clean Money candidate gets additional money to match what their opponents privately raise. At first glance this looks like an invitation to raid the treasury. In actuality, however, it represents a disincentive for special-interest fund-raising. Every extra dollar privately-funded candidates raise through compromising and time-consuming fund-raising, Clean Money candidates get for free.
Wouldn't it be great if the US Congress banned soft money and in Vermont and Massachusetts legislators and prospective candidates supported Clean Money? We'd then have candidates beholden to the voters, not to special interests with out-of-state money. We'd also have a level playing field with no candidates able to buy their way into office.
Campaign reform is a litmus test issue for me; it's about democracy, a prerequisite for the standards we set in governing ourselves. Both Massachusetts and Vermont have the Clean Money option. Let elected officials and potential candidates know that you want them to support Clean Money. Tell them that you'll support only those candidates willing to run with Clean Money. We should demand of our elected officials that they commit themselves to the voters and not to the big money benefactors who, not being fools, expect a return on the money they enthusiastically invest in candidates running for public office.
Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro, Vt., and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org