Philadelphia Inquirer

Put limits on campaign cash

Editorial Board

September 27, 2012

Congress failed to take up the unfettered money that has reached scandalous proportions in this election cycle before recessing to get on the campaign trail. But a bill has been introduced that could provide an alternative to politicians’ dependency on the huge amounts of campaign cash that come with strings attached.

The Empowering Citizens Act would set up a voluntary system for House and Senate candidates to receive matching funds for elections. If candidates agree to accept half the legal limit for individual donations – taking $1,250 instead of $2,500 – they would receive federal matching funds at a five-to-one ratio for all donations under $250. A $100 donation would be matched with $500.

If a super PAC or “social welfare” group insinuates itself into an election, the candidates would be able to launch a counter-attack using funds from their national party that were raised from contributions limited to no more than $1,250 per donor.

Unlike other attempts to launch voluntary campaign limits, this one does not cap expenditures. That is a lamentable bow to the reality of modern campaigning, where more and more money is spent on television commercials that give voters less and less useful information.

The proposed federal act is modeled after New York’s somewhat successful voluntary matching program, which is credited with giving the Big Apple a more diverse City Council.

But the program has not been so successful with mayoral candidates. Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent millions to win his office, ignoring the city’s progressive campaign finance system.

But big money doesn’t always win. Gov. Christie took advantage of New Jersey’s matching funds program in 2009 and beat wealthy, self-financing former Gov. Jon Corzine.

Using matching state funds, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy won both the primary and general election against self-funding millionaires in 2010.

Giving citizens the ability to make small campaign contributions that really matter to candidates would give voters more power. With their modest contributions, citizens would actually direct the use of public campaign funds.

Candidates would have to pay more attention to constituents and their interests, instead of lobbyists who hold big-dollar fund-raisers in exchange for a little “quality time” with elected officials.

Congress recessed before requiring “social welfare” groups to disclose the sources of their funding, or making super PACs disclose their donors on a more regular basis. Already, such groups have spent five times as much as they did in 2008.

Voters need to know who’s trying to persuade them.

The Empowering Citizens Act could change the game by putting control of the money flow in the people’s hands. Too bad the bill won’t help with the current election.

But maybe when Congress returns after Nov. 6, and contemplates the wreckage that lopsided spending has caused by electing special-interest patsies, it will pass campaign finance reform legislation in a lame duck session.


How Small Money Can Matter Again in Politics

Jonathan Alter

September 27, 2012

A funny thing’s happening on the way to Nov. 6. The billionaires trying to buy the U.S. election with contributions of $1 million, $10 million or even $100 million aren’t succeeding.

If trends continue and the Democrats have a good year (still a big if), the notion that in order to win candidates need the indirect backing provided by gobs of money from super-political action committees will be discredited.

Then we’ll see a small opening for a practical solution to our corrupt politics that would require no spending limits, no barring of super-PACs and no constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

This solution would free at least some candidates for federal office from dispiriting and corrupting lives of endless fundraising and legalized bribery. It would strike a blow for democracy, localism and choice (always a crowd-pleaser for the Republicans) in our elections.

It’s important to understand why the deluge of super-PAC contributions — and those from shadowy 501(c)4 groups, which don’t require disclosure — isn’t working as well as Republican strategists Karl Rove and the Koch brothers or the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson may have hoped. (The same goes for the relative pikers on President Barack Obama’s side, such as the Priorities USA super-PAC).

Internet Advantage

The reason is that big money in politics has a competitor: small money in politics. Even though big money is winning this year — it accounts for more than 75 percent of donations — small money raised on the Internet is better adapted to the 21st century political battlefield.

Big money is used mostly to pay for negative television ads. These spots can still be potent and force the other side to raise enough money to rebut them. But Americans, especially younger voters, aren’t watching TV the way they used to. They’re time-shifting programming and are increasingly cynical about ads. With all the airwave pollution, saturation levels are reached earlier, especially if the messages in the ads are at odds with what’s going on in the news.

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, and several trailing Republican Senate candidates are finding this out.

Super-PACs can dominate the air war, but they have trouble buying ground troops. Political strategists know from experience that phone banks and canvass teams made up of low-wage hired help are far inferior to those using volunteers sincerely trying to persuade voters.

The reason the Obama campaign sends out so many irritating requests for $3 or $5 donations is that these solicitations do more than just raise cash. Once millions of small donors have a little skin in the game, they’re much more likely to assist with registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. This willingness to help can’t be purchased by super-PACs at any price.

I’m not suggesting that small donations are competitive yet. In House races in 2010, only 8 percent of contributions were for less than $200. But with a boost, small money can play with the big boys.

In “Empowering Small Donations in Federal Elections,” Adam Skaggs, of the Brennan Center for Justice, and Fred Wertheimer, the founder and director of Democracy 21, offer a voluntary plan based on the very successful model adopted in New York City. Contributions of $250 or less would be matched by federal funds at a 5-to-1 ratio. Thus, $250 would yield $1,250, which would be the upper limit on allowable contributions for the candidates who participate. (That cap might be too low, but let’s not quibble.)

Donation Caps

The system would require a certain threshold of in-state donations to encourage local participation and would be capped at $2 million for a House campaign and $10 million for a Senate race. The total price — $700 million a year — is an enormous bargain fortaxpayers because the changes would help prevent big donors from buying tens of billions in tax breaks, subsidies and other favors. If the Republican Party is serious about removing the special-interest breaks that would be necessary to achieve comprehensivetax reform, it will need to be shielded by matched financing of elections.

Candidates who opt out could continue to operate under the old system, as did Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP). But there might be a political penalty to pay for those who go it alone. In Massachusetts this year, both Senate candidates, the incumbent Republican Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, agreed to keep super-PAC money from soiling their race.

Lest you think that federal legislation is a pipe dream, consider that public financing of general elections was accepted by all major party presidential nominees from 1976 until 2008, when Obama opted out after the outdated dollar limits in the matching funds turned out to be lower than the amounts he was raising on his own. This places a special responsibility on the president to help restore a system he helped destroy.

So far, 15 states and several cities have public financing systems, some more effective than others. Republicans, who are often philosophically opposed to this idea, have been especially big supporters of its application in Connecticut, where Republican Governor Jodi Rell was elected in 2006 with small- donor contributions, and in Arizona, where Tea Party candidates used the public financing system to unseat establishment Republican primary candidates. When their interests matched, Tea Party types forgot their ideological objections, just as they have in supporting Medicare. This might offer some hope of getting a bill through Congress.

Unions’ Grip

Small-donor reform also loosens the grip of corporations and unions. Romney was right when he said this week that “we simply can’t have a setup where the teachers unions can contribute tens of millions of dollars to the campaigns of politicians and then those politicians, when elected, stand across from them at the bargaining table, supposedly to represent the interests of the kids.”

Then there’s the wasted time for politicians. Because Romney is so reliant on big donors, he has to spend precious hours at high-end fundraisers instead of campaigning among all voters. The now-infamous video of him dissing the “47 percent” might have taught him the dangers of the system. Obama, too, is distracted by having to show up at dozens of fundraisers. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan tapped public financing and attended none.

Finally, the do-gooders have to stop calling this “campaign finance reform” or “public financing.” That’s bad branding. Next year, after the fiscal cliff is avoided, the hard work of building a movement for small-donor reform will have to begin. Power to the pea shooters.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)