July 13, 1999
Gov. Bush Can Show the Way on Campaign Spending
By Glenn Moramarco
The announcement that Gov. George W. Bush raised an eye-popping $36.3 million in the first six months of 1999 has raised the question of whether he would forgo public funding and its accompanying voluntary spending limits for the presidential primary season. Republican hopeful Steve Forbes may also opt out of the system, choosing to tap his private wealth for the primary campaign. In this environment, reformers must defend the present system as good for candidates and as an important part of a healthy democracy, both now and in the long term.
Voluntary spending limits tied to public dollars were instituted in 1976 to prevent the presidential election campaign from becoming an open-ended money arms race, to limit corruption and the appearance of corruption, and to facilitate competition. These limits have generally kept spending under control; without them, campaign spending could skyrocket out of control.
Current federal law provides matching funds to candidates for small donations they collect. This encourages candidates to develop a broad base of supporters, and the voluntary federal spending limits establish a reasonable upper expenditure level, halting the money chase before it can take off. These limits have been indexed to inflation and have provided ample funds to candidates to run effective campaigns in the past six elections. The system has allowed candidates outside the major party establishment – those not connected to huge numbers of donors – to emerge. Though candidates such as Paul Tsongas in 1992, Jack Kemp in 1988, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 were ultimately unsuccessful, public funds allowed them to inject new ideas into the national debate.
Presidential campaigns may look very different without this system in place. First, we would likely see the acceleration of an already frantic search for campaign dollars. This would not result in better educated voters; rather, it would only escalate the race for dollars among rivals in both parties, creating plenty of campaign heat, but little light. Candidates would be forced to devote an even greater amount of time to dialing and dining for dollars – not to communicate their ideas, but to avoid being drowned out by their well-funded opponents.
Sky-is-the-limit spending would also limit voters? choices at the ballot box. With unlimited money, candidates like Gov. Bush can squelch longer shot candidates in his party before a single vote has been cast or before there has been a single exchange of ideas among candidates. With the money chase beginning earlier and earlier, and nothing in place to facilitate competition, most would simply choose not to run. This is essentially a return to the party machines, in which voters are left with a false choice among preselected candidates. Most importantly, the only choices given to voters would be candidates with access to wealth, or with access to those who can deliver large numbers of big contributions.
Moreover, opting out of the public funding system is not risk-free. Bush will most likely argue that he is saving taxpayers from an unnecessary expense. However, the actual money “saved” in the context of the federal budget is minuscule – less than $17 million. Weighed against the public cost of creating a campaign driven only by the need to raise money and the favors garnered by campaign contributors, this is a bargain. The Bush campaign will not make public the names of his “Pioneers,” who each raise $100,000 or more. One wonders what they expect in exchange for their efforts.
Bush is banking on the hope that there will be no public backlash to his money-saturated campaign. This is a risky bet. Already disillusioned from the excesses of the 1996 campaign, in which, among other things, President Clinton and Bob Dole took federal money and then exceeded spending limits through the use of soft money for television advertising, voters may view the 2000 campaign as one completely without rules. Voters will look for someone to blame. Just as Americans are identifying the cost of youth smoking and are holding the tobacco industry responsible, and are identifying the shared public cost of gun violence and are holding gun-makers responsible, at the end of another debased campaign, they won?t blame a broken “system”; they will blame the people who debased it.
Let’s hope Bush does not begin his campaign by leading the race to the bottom.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Glenn Moramarco is senior attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.