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Putting the Money Back into Politics

A progressive manifesto

By Sasha Post

Thanks to the unfortunate exigencies of newspaper deadlines, this column is a time capsule written in the blistering anxiety of pre-election agitation and flung into a dangerous and uncertain post-election future. But I already feel safe drawing at least one conclusion from this nasty and brutish if not-so-short presidential campaign: It has incontrovertibly demonstrated the impotence of our current campaign finance legislation.

Over the past year the Democratic and Republican parties and the Kerry and Bush campaigns have spent over $300 million each, making this the most expensive presidential race in American history. And that’s not even counting the hundreds of millions more spent by those now-infamous 527s, like America Coming Together (ACT) and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, that have drawn so much fire from both right and left.

So what’s to be done? Campaign finance reform schemes come in all shapes and sizes, but most fall into one of two categories: proposals to get money out of politics and proposals to feed it in.

The former are more intuitive and more widely legislated. One such approach, which focused on limiting campaign expenditures, was derailed back in 1976. In Buckley v. Vallejo the Supreme Court ruled that it violated the First Amendment. But the recent McCain-Feingold campaign reform act passed by Congress in March of 2002 adopted a similar strategy, eliminating unlimited “soft money” contributions to political parties.

Although McCain-Feingold has overcome its own constitutional challenges, it proved less able to meet the challenges of this past election cycle. Through the 527s, “bundled” contributions and other legal loopholes, special interest money still managed to do what special interest money does best: finding its way into campaigns as it always has. Money in politics is like water streaming down a hill—no matter how many obstacles you throw in its path, it still manages to get where it’s going.

So is campaign finance reform a lost cause? Far from it. But we need to get past the myth that, in politics, money is the enemy. The real problem isn’t the money, it’s that candidates have to prostitute themselves to get it. In America, a politician’s chief duty is to represent her constituents—whether a congressional district, a state or the whole nation. But if a politician has to worry about funding her next campaign, her duty often takes a back seat. She has powerful incentives to overvalue the interests of big donors, like corporations, and to undervalue the interests of those who give less, like the poor.

This isn’t about painting tired caricatures of corrupt politicians; it’s about recognizing that all candidates—honest or otherwise—are playing the same rigged game. Instead of just blaming the players, we need to start working to change the rules. Politicians need money to get their message out to the voters; the real question is, where should they be getting it?

The answer is, from us. Full public financing, also referred to as “clean and fair elections,” gives candidates the option to forgo all outside fundraising in exchange for a hefty lump sum of taxpayer dollars. To qualify for funding candidates must first demonstrate broad-based public support by collecting a pre-determined number of small contributions (under most schemes these are pegged at about $5 each). If a candidate who buys into the system is outspent by a challenger who doesn’t, she receives additional public matching funds usually of up to three times the original sum.

Public financing schemes also come in less ambitious, less effective varieties. Matching schemes, like the one used in the presidential elections, are common; candidates who agree to spending caps receive matching public funds for all small and mid-size contributions. But this system has failed to curb the influence of special interest money in the campaigns. Full public financing remains the gold standard for campaign finance reform.

In recent years “clean and fair elections” have begun to fulfill their promise. In Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts, citizens have already passed referenda to adopt the system for all statewide elections. Following its passage of full public financing in 1996, Maine became the first state in the country to adopt universal health care after the influx of public funds diluted the insurance industry’s influence. Arizona has witnessed a 20 percent increase in voter turnout, more competitive races and an upsurge in minority elected officials. In Massachusetts, however, state legislators, content with their comfortable incumbencies and reluctant to face a rash of publicly funded challengers, defied the voters and refused to implement the new system.

Full public financing should not be a partisan issue. Unlike caps on campaign contributions and expenditures, full public financing comports with the right’s inherent skepticism of government regulation. And it perfectly reflects the left’s ambition to liberate politics from special interests. Until the public controls the power of the purse, it will continue to get shortchanged. If someone is going to own our politicians, it might as well be us.

Sasha Post ’05 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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