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"Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI),"

by Sen. Russell Feingold May/June 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

Jamin Raskin's analysis, "Race, Poverty and the 'Wealth Primary'," makes several important observations on the corrupted, dilapidated state of our current system of funding political campaigns. As one of the original authors of 5.25, the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, I want to underscore the issue of the influence of money on the system.

There is no doubt about the power that money can wield in the political process; the examples appear in the media every day. There is simply no question that a connection exists between the ability of certain powerful special interests - from large agribusiness concerns and oil and gas companies to communications corporations and weapons manufacturers -to pour millions of dollars into political campaigns and their ability to secure millions, sometimes billions, of dollars worth of federal contracts, subsidies and other spending, and to later protect those perquisites when lawmakers start talking about cuffing spending to balance the federal budget.

At the same time, some lawmakers, have learned to work this system to their own advantage, resulting in "access auctions," with special perks available, for a price, that, at the very least, give the impression a favored wealthy few have personal access to, and influence upon, elected officials. One powerful lawmaker was reported to have kept a list of "friendly" and "unfriendly" businesses and organizations, with the categories determined by whether these businesses and organizations made campaign donations to the lawmaker's allies.

This amounts to a system that works to increase the volume of those voices who are backed up by big money and silence those who cannot "put up."

While the ethical dimensions of campaign finance reform are important, supporters of reform efforts see and articulate the belief that the current system is corrosive to the democratic process and that reform is essential to opening up that process to more people, both at the polls and in the halls of Congress, and to restoring the faith of the American people in the process, a faith that is the glue that holds our system together.

Allow me to use examples from the McCain-Feingold bill: One of the major provisions of our bill is a ban on so-called "soft money," the millions of dollars that pour, unregulated and unlimited by federal law, into political campaigns. If you were making the case that our current system is corrupt and corrosive to democracy, soft money would be exhibit number one.

Soft money contributions represent the worst example of the excesses and the corrupting nature of the current system of financing political campaigns, and the sums being contributed have grown rapidly. According to a January 10, 1997, Federal Election Commission report cited in a recent Congressional Research Service analysis, Republican national committees raised about $141 million for their soft money accounts from January 1, 1995, to November 25, 1996, a 183% increase over the same time period in the 1991-92 election cycle. Democratic national committees raised about $122 million during this same period, a 237% jump from the amount raised during the 1991-92 election cycle.

Soft money contributions do not come from average or low-income Americans, but from the wealthiest sectors of our society. Soft money enhances the influence of the wealthy few over the political process and contributes to the erosion of the one-person/one-vote principle on which our electoral system is based. Shutting down the channel for $263 million worth of soft money contributions would be a major reform.

Another major provision of McCain-Feingold is a system of voluntary spending limits and benefits granted to candidates who adhere to those voluntary limits. Candidates who agree to voluntarily limit their campaign spending would be eligible to receive 30 minutes of free television time during the general election period, and they would receive additional discounted television time and a discount on postage rates for campaign mailings.

To receive these benefits, candidates must voluntarily agree to three limitations on campaign spending: They must agree to voluntarily limit their spending, and those limits would be based upon a state's voting-age population. Smaller states like Vermont or Utah, for example, would have a general election spending limit of just under $1 million, while the limit for general election spending in California would be about $5.5 million.

They must voluntarily agree to limit the amount of personal funds spent on behalf of their candidacies. This limit would be $250,000, or 10% of the general election spending limit in that particular state, whichever is less. In my home state of Wisconsin, for example, the personal spending limit would be about $150,000.

They must voluntarily agree to raise 60% of their overall campaign funds from individuals within their home states.
By lowering spending, voluntarily, we reduce the cost of campaigns and therefore take some of the pressure
off candidates to raise large sums of money. By requiring candidates to raise most of their money at home, we get them to focus on the people they wish to represent. We also make it more feasible for candidates who are not wealthy or who do not have access to large pots of money to run for office.
Both these goals - banning soft money and enacting reforms that open the political system - are solid, positive and feasible steps to reform. The effort to enact these reforms is very much alive and well, despite some well-entrenched opposition. While this is not a perfect answer, or even the last answer, to the need for reform, it is an important step forward.

Notes:

The lead article in our March/April issue, by Amen can Univ. Law School Professor Jamin Raskin ("Race, Poverty & the 'Wealth Primary' "), dealt with campaign financing reform. (Raskin not Wed us of an error in his text, too late to correct at the printer: there are 9, not 7, female Senators - still not too terrific, since women do hold up a little more than half the sky.) Below are commentaries by Senator Russell Fein gold and EMILY's List [Early Money Is Like Yeast] President Ellen Malcolm. Other commentaries will appear in the July/August P&R. If you are receiving P&R for the first time and would like a copy of the Raskin article, send us a SASE. Readers also may want to request a related article from our May/June 1995 issue, "Why Not Democracy" by Temple Univ. Law School Prof David Kaizys - also available with a SASE.

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