The Trick of Campaign Finance Reform

by Steven Hill
This article was published in the Christian Science Monitor, February 1995

Campaign finance reform has become like a rabbit-in-the-hat magic trick. Now you see it, now you don't. And even when you see it, it seems too fake to believe.

Tucked away deep inside President Clinton's 81-minute long State of the Union address, among a long list of to-do's and not-to-do's for the coming year, was the usual call for campaign finance reform. Despite two decades of wrangling and public disgust, t he current 'state of the art' is an ineffectual hodge podge of restrictions on the amount of donations from individuals, corporations and PACs. Republicans and Democrats alike, like Michael Huffington and U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, who broke all recor ds by spending over $40 million in their campaigns for that California seat, have eluded the best of intentions with loopholes, "soft money" from their parties, and bundling of donations.

Public debate about campaign finance reform has proceeded in deep ignorance of how other democracies confront the issue. Yet a comparative approach sheds new light on potential solutions. A survey of rules and practices of the 20 democracies of Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Israel, Australia and New Zealand reveals the following approaches: 1) outright restrictions on the amount of campaign spending for legislative races; 2) restrictions on the amount of donations; 3) public financing of elections; an d 4) free media access to candidates and parties, coupled with a prohibition on paid political advertisements. Some countries combine several of these, a few use all four. The United States stands alone in being the only country to utilize only one of t hese practices for legislative elections, namely restrictions on the amount of donations.

For instance, Canada, France, New Zealand, and Great Britain place firm limits on candidates' campaign spending. The ceiling for legislative candidates ranges from $6200 in New Zealand, $15,000 in Great Britain, $22,000 in Canada, to $75,000 in France. Belgium, Spain and Israel restrict the amount of "soft money" campaign spending by parties. In the U.S. there are no such limits, and costs for legislative races often exceed a half a million dollars.

Opinion polls show that the U.S. public greatly favors restrictions on campaign spending, and President Clinton's State of the Union Address called for Congress to "cap the cost of campaigns." Congress actually passed such a law in 1974, but soon after i ts passage an unlikely coalition of conservatives and civil libertarians filed suit, challenging the law as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. The subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision Buckley vs. Valeo ruled that money is speech a nd not subject to restriction by the government. The court not only struck down limits on candidates' expenses, but also opened up a gaping loophole when it struck down limits on so-called "independent expenditures"-- better known as "soft money" -- spen t on behalf of a candidate rather than donated directly to the candidate. This single legal decision has shaped and distorted subsequent attempts at campaign finance reform.

It is impossible to underestimate the damaging effects on public policy caused by Buckley. Without the ability to cap campaign expenses candidates must spend greater and greater amounts of time fund-raising. Candidates become beholden to their major dono rs, who because of the "soft money" loophole are able to circumvent any restrictions on maximum campaign donations. Many voters have become disgusted and cynical, perceiving their democracy to be "for sale" to the highest bidder.

One of the other great casualties of Buckley is public financing of elections. Most of the twenty liberal democracies have some form of public financing for legislative candidates, but despite several attempts Congress has failed to pass such a law for l egislative races. In the absence of any ceiling on campaign expenses, and with the costs of campaigns skyrocketing, it's unlikely that the public -- already in a foul anti-government mood -- is going to give candidates a blank check at the public's expen se to match the profligate ways of candidates like Michael Huffington or Diane Feinstein.

Many within the legal community believe that Buckley should be overturned. For this reason the National Voting Rights Institute of Cambridge, MA has filed a lawsuit targeting what they call "the wealth primary." Citing an abundance of evidence, such as t he fact that in 1992 Congressional House winners spent on average $543,000 and the losers only $201,000, the goal of the lawsuit is to challenge the validity of Buckley vs. Valeo. While the First Amendment guarantees free speech, say the litigants, the F ourteenth Amendment guarantees "equal protection for all," including free speech for all, not only to those who have the most money.

The fourth type of campaign finance reform practiced in the other countries, free access to the media, could go a long way toward reducing campaign costs. Yet the United States is the only one of the twenty democracies which does not offer this type of s upport to parties or candidates. Fifteen of the twenty nations also prohibit paid political advertisements as a way of keeping the playing field even, and the Scandinavian countries hold televised discussions and debates in which candidates and party rep resentatives participate. Such ideas are rarely, if ever, discussed as part of campaign finance reform in the U.S., though perhaps there is a flicker of hope since President Clinton's State of the Union address asked the Republican Congress to "open the a ir waves" by giving "free TV time to candidates for public office."

Those who are serious about wringing money out of politics would do well to pay attention to the examples of other countries. Such a comparative approach demonstrates what a monumental barrier Buckley is to effective campaign finance reform, as well as t he importance of legal challenges to Buckley like the lawsuit filed by the National Voting Rights Institute.

If you would like more information about the lawsuit challenging Buckley vs. Valeo contact the National Voting Rights Institute, 1130 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138 Tel. (617) 424-7950.

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