Reforms Don't Work?
excerpted from the book
How big corporate money buys
elections, rams through legislation,
and betrays our democracy
by Mark Green
Regan Books (HarperCollins)
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
* 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
* 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
* 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
* 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
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
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
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
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
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.