A birthday coupled with some reflections on my first reporting job in Washington prompted the stunning realization that I have been writing about campaign reform for half a century.
As a fledgling reporter for Congressional Quarterly in 1969, I was given the laborious task of converting into print the campaign spending disclosures from the prior congressional election.
Regarded with grave solemnity by my editors, the disclosures themselves were comic masterpieces of creative writing. Filed under the toothless Corrupt Practices Act of 1925, they allowed a victorious senator who had survived a hotly contested race to claim that his entire campaign cost something like (and it was always a suspiciously precise figure) $6,318.26.
In those pre-Watergate days, the primary goal of reformers was to pass legislation limiting campaign costs. The motivation was part political puritanism about TV advertising and part a rightful concern about the unchecked power of wealthy donors and self-funders.
I vividly recall covering a congressional hearing on a popular proposal to mandate free television time for federal candidates. That boomlet died when the presidents of the three broadcast networks presented mockups of what the prime-time TV schedule would look like in the weeks before an election in New York and Los Angeles. Instead of programs like Bonanza, Here’s Lucy, and the Doris Day Show, viewers in these huge metropolitan areas would be fed a steady diet of 30-minute appeals by 50 or more House candidates spread across upwards of 20 districts.
During my half-century on the campaign reform beat, there have been moments of elation with the passage of the post-Watergate legislation and the McCain-Feingold bill outlawing unregulated “soft money” in 2002. But such bursts of exuberance have mostly proven to be short-lived illusions. They were undermined by dispiriting Supreme Court decisions (Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United), an often non-functioning Federal Election Commission, and the embrace of free-spending mechanisms like Super PACs by politicians in both parties.
I will be honest: There have been moments when the shimmering goal of creating political campaigns that are not dominated by the super-wealthy has seemed as elusive as making Esperanto the world’s second language.
Still, if I squint when looking back, I can detect a few hopeful lessons for the next bipartisan drive for campaign reform. (The word “bipartisan” was deliberately chosen to emphasize that any lasting campaign -finance legislation will need GOP support to survive a Senate filibuster and to earn across-the-board public approval in these politically polarized times.)
Disclosure remains the bright spot in campaign reform since the days when Richard Nixon’s bagmen delivered suitcases filled with cash to the Watergate plotters. The primary reason why respected members of Congress filed laughable campaign-finance reports in 1969 was that no one had been prosecuted under that section of the Corrupt Practices Act in more than 40 years. For all the current frustration with the loopholes that mask the funding sources of “dark money” political groups, we live in a world where all federal candidates in both parties accept without question the legal requirement for full disclosure of donors. That alone represents major progress.
The one enduring legacy from the late 1960s fascination with free television time is a 1971 law (little-known to anyone other than campaign consultants) that gives candidates (and candidates only) reduced broadcast TV ad rates during the run-up to a primary and general election. As I pointed out in a prior column for the Brennan Center, this legally mandated discount is in effect a Super PAC tax, since independent groups have to pay far more for TV times in hotly contested political seasons.
These reduced TV advertising rates appeal to all members of Congress, regardless of party. While the federal government only directly regulates broadcast television, there should be other ways of reducing campaign costs that can win the support of Republicans as well as Democrats (such free mailings or some form of legally mandated free TV time).
Over the past five decades, a major obstacle to campaign reform has been the fear by one party or the other that new legislation would put their candidates at a partisan disadvantage. That’s part of the practical argument for beginning reform efforts with presidential and congressional primaries, since these hard-fought and expensive battles are between candidates from the same party.
The post-Watergate reform legislation created an innovative system of federal matching funds for presidential primaries. Candidates who displayed a level of financial support across 20 states could have all their contributions up to $250 matched by government funds. These matching funds — coupled with federal financing for the fall campaigns —meant that probably the cleanest presidential elections in American history were from 1976 (Jimmy Carter) to 1992 (Bill Clinton).
But this working set of reforms died with Clinton mining “soft money” channeled through the Democratic Party for his 1996 reelection campaign and George W. Bush disdaining federal financing when he ran in 2000. The underlying problem was that these post-Watergate reforms also set draconian limits on how much candidates could raise and spend in the quest for the White House. And candidates like Bush and Barack Obama quickly calculated that they could raise far more money by not participating in the federal-financing system.
In theory, there should be support in both parties for bringing back the federal matching-funds program (without spending limits) for the presidential primaries. Such a law could take effect in 2024 when no one has the foggiest idea who will be on the ballot.
What I have learned over a half-century is that the most effective reforms play off the what’s-in-it-for-me selfish calculations of congressional incumbents in both parties. That’s why I believe there should be a renewed emphasis on reducing campaign costs and encouraging small donors in primaries.
It may not be a panacea, but it is a more fruitful approach than abject despair and futilely railing against the Supreme Court for Citizens United.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.