Reforms Don't Work?

excerpted from the book

Selling Out

How big corporate money buys elections, rams through legislation,
and betrays our democracy

by Mark Green

Regan Books (HarperCollins) , 2002


Representative Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), 1996

"Unless we fundamentally change this system, ultimately campaign finance will consume our democracy. "

Nonpartisan opinion polls have consistently shown that Americans recognize the costs of the blending of money and politics:

* A 2002 CBS News poll found that 72 percent of Americans think that "many public officials make or change policy decisions as a direct result of money q they receive from major campaign contributors"; only <: 13 percent do not think so.

* A 2001 ABC News/ Washington Post poll found that 93 percent "think politicians do special favors for people and groups who give them campaign contributions," and 80 percent said that it happens "often." In addition, 87 percent identified this as a problem, and 67 percent said it was "a big problem."

* In a 2000 ABC News/ Washington Post poll, 70 percent of Americans said that "reforming election campaign finance laws" would be either very important or somewhat important "in deciding how to vote in the 2000 presidential election."

* In a 2000 Harris poll, 80 percent said that "people who give money to political parties and candidates have more influence than voters," versus 12 percent who said voters have more influence.

* In a 2000 New York Times/CBS poll, 86 percent said the system for funding campaigns needs either "fundamental changes" or to be "completely rebuilt."

* A 2000 poll by Business Week found that 74 percent of Americans say that when it comes to "influencing

government policy, politicians, and policy makers in Washington," big companies have "too much influence."

* A 1999 Newsweek poll found that 87 percent of Americans believe that "good people being discouraged from running for office by the high cost of campaigns" is a problem for this country's political system, and 63 percent called it a "major problem."

* In a 1997 New York Times/CBS News poll, 75 percent believed that "many public officials make or change policy decisions as a result of money they receive from. major contributors."

* In a 1996 Gallup poll, 79 percent favored "putting a limit on the amount of money that candidates for the U.S. House and Senate can raise and spend on their political campaigns," and 67 percent favored limiting the amount of money a candidate for federal office, such as the presidency and Congress, can contribute to his or her own political campaign.

Clean Money, Clean Elections

In 2000, Ed Youngblood, a first-time candidate for the Maine State Senate, challenged a powerful incumbent and won. At the same time in Arizona, another first-time candidate, a professor named Jay Blanchard, challenged the Arizona Speaker of the House-and also won. Neither Youngblood nor Blanchard would have begun their campaigns in the first place had they not been able to run "clean."

That year, candidates throughout Arizona and Maine participated in full public financing programs-dubbed "Clean Money, Clean Elections" by advocates-that voters had passed in referendums. Unlike public matching funds, full public financing provides a Hat grant, equal to the spending limit, to candidates who collect a threshold number of $5 contributions. The idea is to eliminate fund-raising, except for the seed money that demonstrates community support, and to guarantee a level playing field by ensuring that every credible candidate has the same amount of money.

"It's a good way of giving government back to the people," said Youngblood. "It lets people who are not well connected run for the legislature." Peter Mills, a Republican incumbent Maine state senator who ran clean in 2000, said, "It was refreshing not to have to raise money.... I feel a certain independence from special-interest groups. It was nice to be able to say, 'Thanks for the thought, but I'm running clean."'

The 2000 elections in Arizona and Maine were the first to be held under Clean Money laws, and although it is still too early to draw conclusions, the preliminary findings are encouraging. Compared with previous elections, in both states more candidates ran for office, had financially viable campaigns, and were competitive at the polls-and all for under seventy cents per resident.

In Arizona, where one quarter of candidates participated in the public financing program, contested races increased 62 percent from 1996. "We were able to find some really terrific people in seats that frankly would have been difficult to find good candidates [for] in the past," said Rick Bennett, the Republican president of the State Senate. "And in fact some seats where we had no candidates two years ago, people are running because the Clean Elections Act allowed them to be competitive."

In 1998, losing candidates for the Arizona State Senate raised on average 40 percent of the amounts raised by the winners. Yet with the advent of Clean Money in 2000, they raised slightly more than the winners-an astonishing fact. Losing candidates for the Arizona House of Representatives raised 78 percent of what winning candidates raised, compared with 51 percent in 1998. "Public funding appears to have really turned traditional trends upside down in Arizona's State Senate races while leveling the playing field significantly in the House races," said Samantha Sanchez, co-director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan research group.

In Maine, where nearly one-third of candidates participated in the Clean Money program, the results were similar: losing candidates in 2000 raised 78 percent of what the winners raised, versus only 53 percent in 1998. The number of competitive races, defined as those in which the winner's margin of victory was no more than 20 percent, rose 21 percent in Maine's Senate elections and 17 percent in its House elections. In addition, incumbents in both Maine and Arizona have traditionally enjoyed a 2-to-1 fund-raising advantage; however, in the 2000 election, challengers in Maine raised 78 percent as much as incumbents, and in Arizona, 77 percent.

Elections have become more competitive in Maine and Arizona, and candidates, freed from the money chase, have become more productive. By requiring that candidates raise a small amount of money from a large number of people-rather than a large amount from a small number-Clean Elections naturally blends fund-raising and campaigning into one activity. "I spent 90 percent of my time knocking on doors," said Don Gean, a former Maine House member and an unsuccessful candidate for Maine Senate in 2000. "This is where a candidate belongs, standing on porches."

In a survey of candidates who participated in Maine's program, nearly three-quarters responded that full public financing affected the way they campaigned-and by far the most important impact was that it allowed them to spend more time with voters. Senator David Peterson, an Arizona Republican, compared the old system with the new: "In previous campaigns, I would say that at least half or a third of the campaign was spent raising the dollars. In this campaign, the time I spent raising the dollars was actually in front of my constituents. It made me be more of a grassroots candidate."

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that residents in Maine and Arizona are also getting a more representative government. In January 2001, as the first Clean Money candidates took their seats in the Maine legislature, the Democratic leadership took up the issue of price controls for prescription drugs. "Historically, the pharmaceutical industry had given about equally to Republican and Democratic leadership committees," said Maine Senate Majority Leader Chellie Pingree. "When we raised the issue of price controls, we were immediately cut off. This year they are giving only to Republicans," a loss that Democrats might have felt much more keenly before clean money took the pressure off. "I think the passage of the Clean Elections Act freed up some of our legislators to feel less vulnerable about voting for the plan. One reason the prescription drug plan passed in Maine and not at the federal level is that money is less of a factor here."

Other legislators in Maine agreed. Before full public financing, Representative Paul Volenik had great difficulty getting support for his universal health care plan. But in the spring of 2001 Maine took the first steps toward such a system, and Volenik believes that public financing played a role: "The insurance industry's influence has been diminished, and a portion of that is due to Clean Elections." State representative Glenn Cummings, a Clean Money candidate, confirmed the transformation: "The business lobbyists left me alone. I think they assumed I was unapproachable. It sure made it easier to get through the hallways on the way to the vote!"

Public financing allows elected officials to operate independently. "Under the Clean Money option candidates will still get the money- but this time from the taxpaying public, who, providing the money, will be the boss," explained former congressman Cecil Heftel (D-HI) in his book End Legalized Bribery. "Instead of running filet mignon campaigns compliments of the rich and powerful, candidates will be forced to run pizza, hamburger, and spaghetti campaigns compliments of the American public."

Other Countries

Since its founding, America has always viewed itself as the world's champion of democracy, and our soldiers continue to fight and die in its name. When it comes to free and fair elections, however, it appears increasingly that others have taken the lead in the fight for the Lincolnian ideal of "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."

In a recent study of sixty democracies, researchers found that 70 percent of countries-from Argentina to Zimbabwe-have some form of public financing of elections; nearly half have spending limits and offer tax incentives for contributions; and one-third provide free or subsidized printing or postage for campaign mailings. In addition, 88 percent of countries-from Botswana to Barbados and Ukraine to Uruguay-offer free political broadcasts. The few that do not are Ecuador, Honduras, Malaysia, Taiwan, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago ... and the United States. For the country that gave the world Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, we're keeping some pretty strange company.

The free-market economist Joseph Schumpeter defined democracy as "free competition for a free vote." Most democratic countries understand that if the cost of competition is steep, elections are not free but very expensive. As a result, most countries offer the public airwaves for use in public elections. But not in America.

Among the chorus of critics is renowned investor Warren Buffett "We should require broadcast stations-the beneficiaries of incredibly valuable licenses, courtesy of your federal government-to make available, prior to every election, modest amounts of time for political discourse. Let's add an ability to be heard to a right to speak."

On this issue the states are dependent on congressional action, because broadcasters hold federal licenses. This has not stopped Rhode Island, however, from mandating free airtime on public television and community cable television for all candidates who participate in the state's public funding program.

In the British elections of 2001, parties were given five minutes a week of free airtime on both public television (BBC) and the commercial networks. In addition, there was no money chase to pay for an endless barrage of political commercials because there are no political commercials; Britain bans them. The defining unit of the American political campaign-thirty-second advertisements that sell images, attacks, and sound bites-simply does not exist in Britain. Free airtime and a ban on commercials offer two important benefits: they sharply reduce the demand for campaign cash, and they offer a higher level of public discourse at a cheaper price. In Britain's 2001 elections, the total cost of electing its 651-member House of Commons was $60 million-less than Jon Corzine spent winning one legislative seat.

Campaign finance scandals are not a uniquely American phenomenon, as influence peddlers can be found the world over.

For years European democracies have regarded influence-peddling campaign money as a peculiarly American problem, part of our wild western elections. Not anymore.

In 2000, for example, Prime Minister Tony Blair was tarnished when he backed the sale of a Romanian steel company to a London-based Indian businessman who had, weeks before, given $180,000 to Blair's Labor Party; the Conservative Party, attacked as the party of "sleaze" by the prime minister in the last election, has aggressively seized the issue. In Canada, leading newspapers have called for the resignation of Prime Minister Jean Chretien because of what his opposition calls a pattern of how his ministers allegedly give big contracts to big contributors to his Liberal Party. And in Italy, the country's wealthiest man, Silvio Berlusconi, became its head of state due, in no small measure, to the power his money could purchase.

But while other democracies can no longer smugly chide our campaign finance scandals, unfortunately America still leads the way in size and sway of political money.

Selling Out

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