Cleaning Up Elections
The Nation magazine, September 17/24, 2001
The terrain of the battle for campaign finance reform has
now shifted to the House of Representatives and, less noticed
but more important, to the Massachusetts legislature. Two approaches
to reform are at issue. One limits the ways that private money
can be given and spent in elections; the other holds that replacing
big donations with public financing is the only way to cleanse
a rotten system.
In the House, reformers are collecting signatures on a discharge
petition that would force a floor debate and a vote on the Shays-Meehan
campaign finance bill, which the GOP leadership buried in the
last session. They need 218 signatures; Common Cause had tallied
205 signatures on the petition, including fifteen Republicans.
House passage of Shays-Meehan would be a significant victory
for Congressional reformers, but it will not win the war against
the big money corrupting the system. Like McCain-Feingold, its
Senate counterpart, Shays-Meehan bans soft money, but it also
doubles the amount of hard-money contributions wealthy special
interests can make. US PIRG reports that had these changes been
in effect for the 2000 elections, the top 144 lobbying firms in
Washington would have been prevented from giving $1.4 million
in soft money, but they could have legally given $8.7 million
more in hard money.
The only way to achieve meaningful campaign finance reform
is through full public financing. That's why Massachusetts, where
a Clean Elections bill is currently bottled up in the legislature,
is so important. Like similar legislation already implemented
in Maine, Arizona and Vermont, Clean Elections would enable public
officials to run fully funded, viable campaigns for office without
having to depend on private donors to any significant degree.
Under Clean Elections laws, candidates who agree to raise little
to no private money and abide by strict spending limits can qualify
for equal grants of full public financing for their campaigns.
Additional matching funds are given if a participating candidate
faces a high-spending opponent. Prospective candidates qualify
by collecting a fairly large number of very small (around $5)
contributions. The laws free them from the private money chase
and make reaching out to voters on the issues and organizing a
grassroots base more important than fundraising ability. In short,
democracy the way it ought to be.
In 1998 Massachusetts voters passed a Clean Elections initiative
by a two-to-one margin. But Thomas Finneran, the Democratic state
House speaker, has used various maneuvers to prevent the law from
going into effect for the 2002 election. Finneran's machinations
have rallied reform-minded citizens to the law's defense. Pressure
from grassroots activists led by Mass Voters for Clean Elections
has been so intense that several lawmakers were compelled to switch
their positions after a vote this past spring in the state House
that would have stripped the law of its funding. Later, the state
Senate overwhelmingly backed a countermeasure that fully funds
the system. Now the matter is bottled up in a conference committee,
while Republican Governor Jane Swift has tried to force the issue
by including full funding for Clean Elections in an interim state
budget and' we hope, will continue to do so.
On August I candidates for statewide office started the process
of collecting the 6,000 contributions (of no more than $100 each)
the law says they must have to qualify for a base-level grant
of $1.6 million for the primary. Lower-level and legislative candidates
are seeking to "run clean" as well. But the vision of
a people-driven democracy won't be realized in Massachusetts until
Finneran relents in his opposition to a Clean Elections law. Readers
can help by going to the website www.massvoters.org or by calling
Finneran's office at (617) 7222500. A March for Democracy, from
Lexington to Boston, is planned for September 16.
Just as woman suffrage started with laws passed in the states
and led to the Nineteenth Amendment, the Clean Elections movement
is bubbling up from the states. After four pioneering states gave
women the vote, it took another twenty years before woman suffrage
was national. Let's hope it won't take that long for Clean Elections
to become the law of the land.