A Dead Idea Nationally, But Alive in the States

Posted September 8, 2005 at 2:54pm

Just a decade and a half ago, partial public financing of Congressional campaigns was a pen stroke away from reality, only to be checked by a presidential veto.

A few years later, comprehensive campaign reform, including voluntary public resources for candidates who agreed to spending limits, finally overcame a filibuster in the Senate and overwhelmingly passed in the House. The reconciled measure couldn’t surmount a filibuster, however, and an idea that had persisted for decades failed yet again.

Today, public financing still commands quiet support by many reformers. But it is rarely brought up as a solution, even by those who steadfastly believe that money has a corrupting influence on elections. And among those who oppose restrictions on campaign financing, it has become a virtual bogeyman.

So has the idea made a full retreat?

Yes and no.

Interviews with a half dozen proponents suggest that the idea has simply retreated from the national debate and found residence in the state legislatures and on statewide ballot initiatives.

The pivotal year for this shift was 1993. The previous year, a Democratic Congress passed a comprehensive reform bill that included limited public financing for Congressional races. President George H.W. Bush vetoed it.

Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign-finance activist who now runs Democracy 21, suggested that these two facts were probably not coincidental. “The one time it actually passed and went to the president,” he said, “people knew Bush would veto it.”

The next year, however, brought the idea’s death knell, at least on the national stage.

“Where it really fell off the table was back in 1993,” said Derek Cressman, director of the California-based grass-roots group For the Rest of Us. President Bill Clinton had just taken office, and the Democratic Congress knew he would sign the package of reforms they sent to his desk. “Then somehow Congress couldn’t get its act together to pass it,” Cressman said, calling it a “squandered opportunity that I would squarely blame the Democrats for.”

House Democratic leaders didn’t bring up the bill until the end of 1993, by which time campaign reform had lost much of the momentum Clinton had given it in his campaign and inaugural address.

It did eventually pass the House with an 80-vote margin. But the chamber couldn’t find consensus with stronger legislation in the Senate. For the better part of 1994, the two chambers battled, and by the time the legislation emerged from conference, Wertheimer remembered, it was a “sitting duck” for a Republican filibuster that had already been surmounted earlier in the 103rd Congress.

That fall, of course, the Republicans swept into power in both chambers, and the concept of federally funded election campaigns — whether in the form of free airtime for candidates or a system to match small contributions with vouchers or direct subsidies — has been in retreat since.

Instead, the focus of the debate switched to outlawing soft money, which reformers believed was the most egregious of the abuses.

This shift has been evident in recent discussions about reining in 527s, the groups that after implementation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act became the vehicle of choice for unlimited and unregulated donations by corporations, unions and individuals.

In defending a bill he introduced this Congress against those who argue that it undermines the spirit of BCRA, Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) said his proposal would merely allow more hard, or more closely regulated, money into the system. The whole rationale for BCRA, in his estimation, was to get rid of the allegedly corrupting soft money in favor of strictly regulated funds. If reformers really worship at the altar of hard money, he asks, what’s the problem?

The answer, unspoken by campaign-finance reformers, is that while hard money is indeed better than soft money, it’s corrupting nonetheless. The best alternative, for those who hold this view, is a system that frees candidates from dialing for dollars from those with interests before Congress. In other words, public financing.

Apparently, though, the public was never on board with the idea. In a 1997 poll, perhaps the most recent to be conducted on the subject, CBS News and The New York Times found that the public didn’t favor “public financing of political campaigns — that is, using only tax money to pay for political campaigns,” by 75 percent to 20 percent. Half of the sample was given the question differently and asked about using “government funds” (as opposed to “tax money”) to pay for public financing, and of that group 31 percent were in favor and 65 percent were opposed.

That same poll found that 89 percent of those surveyed believed that the system needed either fundamental change (50 percent) or to be completely rebuilt (39 percent).

“My general conclusion was just that this was a nonstarter in terms of public opinion,” said American Enterprise Institute scholar and Roll Call contributing writer Karlyn Bowman. “Perhaps as a package of reforms it might have a go.”

But every time public financing did come close to enactment it was part of a series of reforms — yet it still failed. Depending on one’s point of view, the packages failed because of, or in spite of, the public financing provisions.

Asked when the idea of public financing left the national dialogue, former Sen. Jim Abourezk (D-S.D.) remarked that it never really was part of it to begin with.

“If it was very close we would have kept trying,” Abourezk said.

He remembers a debate inside the Democratic Caucus in the Senate in 1973 about whether to push for complete public financing. “There were some very powerful speeches in there,” Abourezk said, including one by then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), who cried in an impassioned plea for colleagues to eliminate what he described as the most embarrassing thing he ever engaged in as a Senator: soliciting money.

In the end, Abourezk remembered, “it was just too much opposition from the old-timers, both Northern liberals and Southern committee chairmen. They just didn’t want to finance their opponents’ campaigns.”

To Wertheimer, that has always been the silent, or not-so-silent, roadblock: The system benefits those already elected, and changing it could benefit their potential opponents.

“You’ll hear 100 arguments,” he said, including strong philosophical opposition to so-called welfare for politicians, “but that’s the overwhelming hurdle.”

Former Rep. Andy Jacobs (D-Ind.), who worked to curry support for this idea while he was in the House, agreed. He says he’s heard all the arguments, including the notion that providing matching funds for qualifying candidates or vouchers for airtime would force Americans to subsidize those with whom they vehemently disagree.

Does Jacobs want to fund candidates with whom he differs? “My answer is, ‘You’re damn right I do.’ I want to pay taxes to hear the complete arguments of all of the candidates … not just the ones who are cozy with the lobbyists and not have the greater public interest drowned out by the big bucks.”

In the years since Jabobs and Abourezk have left Congress, the issue has disappeared from Washington almost entirely. Most reform-oriented groups now barely mention public financing and have instead focused their efforts on limiting soft money.

The Committee for Economic Development, a group made up of more than 200 business and academic leaders, issued a report in 1999 proposing a sweeping campaign finance proposal that had as one of its central features public financing for Congressional races. The group has continued to promote the idea in its subsequent reports, but such proselytizing is certainly the exception.

“There has been a weakening in my view of the entire public financing reform effort,” said Steve Weisman of the Campaign Finance Institute, an independent think tank. “Nobody is talking about this. There has been kind of a lack of juice on the whole thing.”

At least on the federal level, that is. Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, a D.C.-based group founded in 1997 to bring awareness to the issue of public financing, tells a somewhat different story.

“It’s gone to the states,” he said. His group was started, Nyhart said, to show that the issue was politically viable and “that it worked.”

“We were founded because the conversation about public financing at the federal level had really fallen off and we wanted to take it back,” he added. “Members of Congress don’t want a spotlight shed on their own fundraising practices, and this discussion inherently does that. That is why the states are a better seedbed for reform.”

The efforts at the state level appear to be having an effect. Some sort of public financing system has been enacted or is being actively debated in Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia, as well as the cities of Portland, Ore., and Albuquerque, N.M. And voters in Massachusetts enacted a public-financing scheme by ballot initiative only to see it undone by the state Legislature.

Public Campaign has been especially supportive of measures that require candidates to raise a large number of small contributions to qualify, such as the $5 and $30 donations that New Jersey candidates must collect, before provide matching funds.

Constitutional guarantees require that such systems be voluntary, but Public Campaign especially likes schemes such as those in the Garden State that provide additional matching funds to candidates who “opt in” to the system of public financing and spending limits but then find themselves facing a privately funded challenger with deep pockets.

Ultimately, Nyhart said he hopes his organization can foster a “whole generation of elected officials who say this is a much better way to do this.”

Cressman agreed. The Rest of Us would also like to see large numbers of small contributions be matched for federal as well as state races.

“I think the way it gets back is success stories and victories at the state level,” Cressman said.