Against the death of campaign finance reform
BY ELLEN S. MILLER
"After Hours, Debate on Fund-Raising Rages," read the headline in The New York Times.
Well, um, yes, you might call it that. But much of the time it's been more like a convention of snake-oil salesmen.
We need more money in politics, says Rep. Tom DeLay, because the $2.8 billion spent on the 1996 campaigns "is less than the American people spend on potato chips."
"All we need to do is have full disclosure in a very timely fashion," says Rep. John Doolittle, "and you would let the electorate judge."
From the other side we hear members saying, essentially, "If we could just eliminate soft money, special interests will be driven from the system."
What utter nonsense. You don't need to be an expert to separate myth from reality. Here are four of the most prevalent ones.
Myth No. 1.
We're told -- usually by those with a vested political or ideological interest in preventing reform -- that campaign finance is of no concern to most people, and therefore lawmakers don't need to act.
The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll was seized upon by these people, because it found that "only" 32 percent of the voters think that changing the way campaigns are financed is a "very important" issue. (Imagine if the millions represented by that number voted their views in November.)
It's true that, as an abstract issue, campaign finance reform ranks lower than reducing crime or improving education as a priority for most Americans. But when people make the connection between issues of tax fairness and the quality of health care they understand the need for reform.
Numerous polls have found overwhelming majorities want a fundamental overhaul of the way political campaigns are financed.
Myth No. 2.
Disclosure is the bedrock of our current system. That's how we know just how bad off we are. And though it could be improved by mandating electronic filing (a no-brainer in the current age of computer technology), without additional analysis, voters would be buried in a blizzard of data.
As Mark Schmitt, policy director for former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley has noted, "Instant disclosure is useless to voters without a lot of additional information to put it in context.
A lot of related information, such as what legislative action a contributor is interested in, doesn't become available until well after the election." This type of "reform" would only further muddle the picture that voters already see: there's too much special interest money in the system and lawmakers are puppets in big contributors' hands.
Myth No 3.
If we count cliches alone, this should be better known as "The Potato Chip Argument." Perpetuated by true deformers, the comparison between political spending and consumer spending on potato chips is the classic apples and oranges trick.
Such comparisons ignore the fact that the market for potato chips is a lot bigger than the market for votes. America's 100 million adult voters are offered a choice of their representatives only once every two years, whereas a far larger pool of consumers buys millions of bags of potato chips every day.
If more money was spent on campaigns would voters be better informed? Not likely. With negative advertising, more money would likely lead to increased voter alienation.
Most importantly, since the vast majority of money that finances campaigns comes from special interests, this "deform" would increase their hold on lawmakers.
Myth No 4.
Let's be clear: soft money has become an endless funnel of special interest money that undermines all limits in the law. Shutting it down is a critical first step. But eliminating it does not address the day-to-day special-interest financing that has corrupted Congress and its lawmaking.
Even with soft money's extraordinary explosion in 1996, it still accounted for only 11 percent of the total amount of money spent. The other 89 percent also came overwhelmingly from wealthy individuals and corporate interests -- as did most of the money fueling political campaigns before the soft money loophole was invented.
And while $2,000 or $10,000 in hard money may comprise a small percentage of a candidate's total war chest, the combined effect of one such contribution coupled with many others from donors representing the same industry or interest group is significant indeed.
The fact that both sides take refuge in these arguments does tell us one other thing: They know that the current system is untenable and that they need to find ways to justify their actions to the folks back home.
But as long as candidates for Congress keep on raising and spending campaign funds at record-breaking rates, and special interests keep on cashing in, no amount of myth-making will suffice.
Ellen S. Miller is executive director of Public Campaign, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization based in Washington, DC. For more information, visit Public Campaign's Web site: www.publicampaign.org.