excerpted from the book
The Corruption of American Politics
by Elizabeth Drew
The Overlook Press, 1999
Perhaps nothing has contributed more to cynicism about government
than the hypocrisy of the politicians about reforming the campaign
finance system. Numerous polls have documented that though majorities
want the system reformed, they don't trust the politicians who
are in the system to change it. And they've been proven right
in no expecting the beneficiaries of a corrupt system to fix it.
Each struggle for campaign finance reform since 1974 has met with
ultimate defeat. So what reason is there for thinking there might
be real reform? What reason is there to think that the politicians
might behave differently?
Since the passage of the comprehensive-and for a while effective-campaign
finance law in 1974, no subject in American politics has been
as bathed in hypocrisy. Everyone is "for" it. But the
form that "it" might take, in certain politicians' calculations,
often amounts to a cosmetic change in the guise of "doing
something," or to something they know the Congress won't
pass, or gutting whatever laws remain. All these people at play
in the fields of hypocrisy may not realize what they're doing
to the body politic- or they may not care.
Disingenuousness defines many proposals, such as one, offered
in recent years by Republicans, to simply require faster reporting
by the candidates of contributions. The information was to be
posted on the Internet. Faster and more accessible reporting would
be useful, of course, but it's no substitute for real reforms.
And it still would take heroic efforts by news outlets and monitoring
groups to translate and give form to the reports-to find out which
contributor has ties to what groups, what the company a contributor
is associated with actually does and what its legislative interests
were-before an election.
The reporting ruse has had as its most vociferous backer an
appropriately named House Republican, Doolittle (John, of California).
Among Republicans, Doolittle came to be known as "the Mitch
McConnell of the House." Reformers feared Doolittle's proposal
because it sounded so plausible.
The hypocrisy practiced by both political parties took other
forms as well. A member would declare support for reform, but
manage to not have to actually vote for it if there was any real
danger that a substantial bill would be enacted into law. Thus,
people could vote for a bill they knew a president would veto,
or that they assumed that the other chamber wouldn't pass, and
still claim credit as a backer of reform. Beryl Anthony, a former
Democratic Member of Congress, and a former chairman of the Democratic
Congressional Campaign Committee, told me, "We used to say,
'What the Democrats pass, the Republicans wouldn't sign into law,
and 'What the Republicans pass the Democrats wouldn't sign into
Anthony told me of an incident in 1992 when House Democrats,
about to pass a campaign reform bill, assured him, "'Don't
worry, Beryl, this thing won't become law."'
Anthony replied, "What if it does? We're screwed."
(It didn't, because Bush vetoed it.)
In the late eighties and early nineties, Mitch McConnell moved
to eliminate PACs, on the well-founded suspicion that the Democrats
wouldn't let that happen in the end, because they needed the PAC
money. "He no more meant that than the man in the moon,"
a business lobbyist told me. "It's an example of how this
whole debate has become posturing." In 1993, McConnell even
offered a bill to ban soft money and to impose tight controls
on "independent expenditures." But now he vigorously
opposed both changes.
Representative Bob Matsui, Democrat of California, explained
to me, "All of it is making sure that the dead cat is not
at your doorstep when all is said and done."
One curious aspect of all this posing was that so many politicians
wanted to be seen as being for reform at the same time that they
were saying that "the public doesn't care."
Another form of the hypocrisy was to proclaim that one was
for campaign finance reform and not lift a finger to help get
it passed by the Congress. The champ at this-at creating the greatest
chasm between promise and performance-was Bill Clinton...
Clinton's abandonment of campaign finance reform is often
attributed to a meeting in Little Rock shortly after the 1992
election with Democratic House leaders who urged him not to push
for reform. But there's scant evidence that it ever would have
been a priority for him once he himself was amidst the Realpolitik
of big-time fund-raising.
In his first four years in office, Clinton rarely spoke about
campaign finance reform and made little effort to get it. In the
succeeding years, he did in this area what he did in others: He
substituted what a Cabinet officer calls "stunts" for
policy-making. But the gap between real and phony action on the
part of the President may have been the greatest in the case of
campaign finance reform.
In 1997, for the obvious reason, Clinton displayed an ostensible
new enthusiasm for the subject. In his State of the Union address,
he called upon the Congress to pass a campaign finance reform
bill "by the day we celebrate the birthday of our democracy-July
the Fourth." (Applause)
That didn't happen, of course, and neither did a number of
other campaign finance reforms that Clinton called for in the
comforting knowledge that they wouldn't happen.
In each case, his aides insisted that this showed that the
President was truly sincere in fighting for campaign finance reform-
really, truly sincere-until some of them finally gave up the |
"There is no financial base for the core issues of the
Democratic Party," he said. "I've said so in the Democratic
Caucus several times. Civil rights, the environment, pro-choice-they
have a voting constituency but they have no financial strength.
In current American politics you can't survive without a financial
constituency. One item on our agenda, education reform, is popular
with the voters. That's why we're still alive. The Democratic
Party is disproportionately funded by organized labor and our
Jewish constituency. The Republicans have a small-donor base.
"Look at the Democratic Party agenda," Torricelli
said. "It's the progressive agenda. Twenty years ago the
Democratic coalition was able to compete even though it didn't
have a big-money constituency-because the amounts were so much
lower. And now we see a possibility of being taken out of contention."
And then he said, "If there's not the right kind of campaign
finance reform, our survival will be in question. We'll have deep,
thoughtful discussions about issues that will raise us money."
Torricelli added that all this, their pro-reform rhetoric
notwithstanding, was why I sensed that Democratic leaders-Senate
and House-didn't want to give up soft money. They didn't, Torricelli
explained-pointing out that he shared this view-at least unless
there were also curbs on "issue ads." Otherwise, the
Republicans would still have the advantage in those, too. But,
as Ed Gillespie, who had previously served as House Majority Leader
Dick Armey's press secretary-one of the best I'd seen on Capitol
Hill-and is now a lobbyist, pointed out, "The Democrats are
trying to remove the Republicans' two greatest areas of advantage:
soft money and issue ads."
Daschle's dilemma had another origin: Like some other Democrats,
he was from a small state, in his case an essentially Republican
one, and was dependent upon the national network of Democratic
donors. Similarly, in the House, many blacks and Hispanics were
dependent on wealthy contributors from outside their districts,
and were loath to give up soft money.
At one point in the strategizing in 1997 on campaign finance
reform legislation, the reform groups-Common Cause in particular-were
willing to settle for only a ban on soft money. The theory was
that past multipart bills had been too hard to get through the
Congress, and that a simple ban on the greatest source of scandal
would be hard to oppose.
But a Senate Democratic strategist said to me at the time,
"If there were a secret ballot on soft money, only thirty-five
or forty [out of forty-five] of the Democrats would be for it."
House Democratic leaders were even more reluctant to change
the rules of war by getting rid of soft money than were their
A House Democratic aide said, in the fall of 1997, "Most
people in the House and Senate feel they've won by the current
system and they don't want to change the current system, period."
Mark Mellman, the Democratic pollster, said that the Senate
Democrats were beset by three competing viewpoints on what to
do. A lot of them, Mellman said, would like to have public financing
of congressional campaigns, along the lines of the presidential
system (before it was destroyed), but know that isn't politically
feasible now. The politicians feel that they can't sell it to
the public so they don't try.
"Two," Mellman said, "survival." Some
Democrats, like Torricelli, felt that the "issue ads"
that came in at the last minute nearly overcame their financial
advantage over their opponents. Mellman said that the Democrats
realized that far more was spent on ads to help Republicans than
would ever be spent for them.
"Three," Mellman said, "utter contempt and
distaste for what they have to do day to day to raise money. They
hate it. There's nobody who doesn't think it's just a little bit
unclean. They have to be exceedingly solicitous of some of the
most difficult people in the world-who aren't even their voters."
Thus, the interests of the two political parties were in direct
conflict-except for a few Republicans who, like Fred Thompson
and John McCain, thought that supporting campaign finance reform
was the right thing to do, and those who also thought it was good
politics. The prevailing view of most of the Republicans was that
they would do best with the fewest limits.
Trent Lott was on record, after all, that he wouldn't be in
national politics if he hadn't been able to raise a great deal
of money to overcome the longtime Democratic hold on his state.
He had also said that limits on fund-raising would hurt Republicans,
who needed to get around the "news media with their prejudices."
That, plus their self-inculcated views on the power of labor,
led the Republicans to resist limits.
But everyone was "for" reform.