In 1985, when Gramm-Rudman-Hollings was enacted as a way to bring fiscal balance, I was quoted in a U.S. News & World Report story expressing skepticism about its impact; I suggested that the automatic across-the-board budget cuts it mandated in the case of failure to reach deficit reduction benchmarks would be sidestepped by resourceful lawmakers, making it a less-successful device than its creators hoped.
A couple of days later, I got a call from Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican. Directly, not through a staffer. I didn’t know him at all, and he was, shall we say, candid in his criticism of my comment and assertive in his defense of GRH. Although there was a nice ego boost in being called by a U.S. senator, it was not entirely a pleasant experience.
But it was quintessential Warren Rudman: passionate, direct, blunt, smart, honest. Later on, during his Senate career and afterward, I became friends with him, and I saw those qualities even more frequently.
Rudman was a force of nature, and whether he was fighting for fiscal probity or, with Gary Hart, warning presciently about the threat of terrorist attacks and calling for a new approach to homeland security, he offered clarion calls for sensible approaches to solving big problems.
Rudman was frequently referred to as a moderate, and in some respects he was. But he was basically an old-school conservative of the flinty Yankee (alright, Jewish Yankee) variety. To those of us who yearn for problem-solving to supplant rigid ideology and rampant tribalism, he was a sterling role model of the best in politics.
Rudman also was a campaign finance reformer. He was appalled by what was happening to the campaign finance system, long before McCain-Feingold was enacted and before Citizens United and its progeny scarred the landscape.
Were he still with us, I have no doubt he would be active on the campaign finance front, seeking a better way, even in the face of a Supreme Court that may yet go even further to demolish all restraints.
Tilting the Balance
What to do? Disclosure, of course, is one key step, especially since it has received full-throated support from the Supreme Court.
I wish we could tighten disclosure rules, but even if we did, it would be only a small step toward health in the system. A bigger step would come from finding a way to empower small donors, who could under the right circumstances provide some balance against the overwhelming force of megadonors.
A couple of years ago, I joined scholars Michael Malbin, Tom Mann and Tony Corrado in devising a better and more comprehensive way to magnify the role of small donors while also empowering parties and making it easier, in the right way, for them to aid their own candidates.
Our report, “Reform in an Age of Networked Campaigns,” has served as a template of sorts for a bill introduced by Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., and backed by Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. (Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina is the sole Republican co-sponsor.)
Price, among other things, gave us the “stand by your ad” provision in McCain-Feingold, which has helped to temper the viciousness of candidate-funded ads.