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The Incumbents’ Case for (Some) Campaign Finance Reform

The conventional wisdom is that genuine campaign finance reform is again doomed to defeat in the upcoming weeks, a victim of incumbents’ sense that the current rules serve their needs well.

Published: May 25, 1998

Roll Call
May 25, 1998

The Incumbents’ Case for (Some) Campaign Finance Reform
By Jonathan S. Krasno

The conventional wisdom is that genuine campaign finance reform is again doomed to defeat in the upcoming weeks, a victim of incumbents’ sense that the current rules serve their needs well. Judging from reelection rates, a fair case could be made that they are right; incumbents have prospered under the existing system. Yet that system is in remarkable flux and the changes are so profound that the time has come for politicians to reconsider their positions on at least some aspects of reform. In fact, the Shays-Meehan bill now before the House would help members of Congress as much as it would please reformers.

Past campaign finance proposals have focused on provisions like spending caps or contribution limits, changes that, however desirable, had the clear potential to reduce incumbents’ chances of reelection. On the other hand, this year’s bill, the product of a rare partnership between a Democrat and a Republican, would make legislators’ lives better.

To attract supporters, the bill’s authors have stripped reform down to its absolute essentials, discarding all sorts of controversial provisions. The result is that Shays-Meehan includes just two principal parts, a ban on soft money and a more careful demarcation of the line between advocacy of issues and electioneering. The first, of course, is aimed at the well-publicized six and seven-figure checks, often from corporate or union treasuries, that poured into national party coffers in 1996 for “party-building.” These contributions, whether raised from foreigners or tobacco companies, in the Lincoln Bedroom or elsewhere, have created a storm of questions about the motives of donors and the practices of the public officials who solicit them.

The provisions on issue advocacy are meant to redirect the flood of thinly disguised campaign advertisements that were so prominent in the last election. As viewers – and the purchasers – of these ads can attest, the omission of magic words like “vote for” or “support” do not separate these commercials from partisan appeals run by candidates.

It is fairly clear why reformers would want these steps and more, but why should incumbent legislators also desire them? For the simplest and most powerful of reasons: doing something about soft money and issue advocacy will simplify and prolong their careers. Back in the “good old days” – say before 1994 or 1996 – campaigns were contests mainly between competing candidates. At the time, incumbents’ opposition to reform was reputedly premised on their ability to raise and spend more money than their opponents’ could muster. Incumbents have understandably been reluctant to give up their advantage in the battle of campaign dollars.

The problem for them is that the way the rules have evolved, the circle of opponents that a candidate may face has expanded far beyond the other people running for a seat. Corporations and labor unions, long banned from direct financial involvement in politics, now funnel millions into elections through donations of soft money to a political party or in advertisements virtually identical to ordinary campaign commercials. Candidate Smith may be fully prepared to deal with candidate Jones, but what does she do when Exxon or the AFL-CIO starts running against her, whether with soft money to a party or directly with its own ads. She can redouble her efforts raising funds, wait for groups on her side to weigh in, or hope voters ignore the campaign against her. None of these options is as good for Smith – or for voters trying to figure out who stands for what – as a straight candidate-against-candidate battle with Jones.

These fears are far from imaginary. In 1996 outside groups spent an estimated $120 to $150 million on issue ads and the parties raised more than $250 million in soft money, and 1998 is shaping up as more of the same. Shays-Meehan would restore much of the old, more comfortable balance to campaigns, making elections contests between candidates rather than contests between candidates plus a shifting array of outside interests.

It is easy to imagine that most candidates and especially incumbents would be eager for a return to the days when they only had to worry about their opponents, but that is apparently not the case. Opposition to Shays-Meehan has been fierce and has come almost exclusively from Republicans. This pattern suggests the degree to which raw partisanship has again hijacked the debate over campaign reform. From a certain standpoint, the GOP’s position is understandable, for the pre-1994 period coincided with years of Democratic control of Congress.

But that misses the main point about the new system – anyone who wants to influence an election may now spend whatever they can afford. In 1996 the AFL-CIO tried to take advantage of these rules, while Republicans complained and waited impatiently for business interests to counter. Businesses eventually did spend heavily in many districts, but Republicans have no way to be sure that their allies will continue to be more generous with soft money donations or spending on issue ads than Democratic allies. There is simply no way to know who will play in each election cycle or how much they will be willing to spend. Republicans should ask them the following: What happens if Bill Gates (or another billionaire) turns out to be an avid Democrat and decides to throw tens of millions into the party or some sort of “issue advocacy campaign directed against their candidates?

Republicans can eliminate that threat by voting for Shays-Meehan. That would leave them, of course, to fight it out with a perhaps smaller but far more certain financial lead over the Democrats and with the power of their ideas. Republicans should take heart that the Democrats controlled the House for 40 years with much the same weapons.

Jonathan S. Krasno is Senior Policy Analyst at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.