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A Way Forward on Campaign Finance Reform?

A Beltway veteran offers a few hopeful lessons for the next bipartisan drive for campaign reform.

March 4, 2019

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.

(Image: Pool/Getty)