Two of the Clinton campaign’s central promises aimed at reducing the federal budget deficit and “reinventing” government. Unfortunately, President Clinton’s recently unveiled campaign finance reform plan will do neither. The most dramatic step the President could take toward accomplishing his goals would be to resist congressmen’s desires on the topic closest to their hearts: election laws.
The President’s plans to lower the Political Action Committee (PAC) contribution limit of $5,000 to match the individual limit of $1,000, to prohibit “bundling” of contributions, and to ban lobbyists from giving or soliciting campaign funds have all been abandoned in the face of opposition from the House Democratic leadership. What remains closely resembles the House and Senate bills H.R. 3 and S. 3, respectively. These bills, similar to last year’s campaign finance reform bill, offer tax dollars to ease incumbents’ fundraising chores while making it more difficult for credible challengers to mount winning campaigns. These bills will cost hundreds of millions of federal dollars annually and further entrench the status quo in Washington.
Congressmen have a direct stake in election laws. Election reforms should make elections more competitive; instead, past “reforms” have increased the already formidable advantage enjoyed by congressional incumbents. Both of the new election reform bills would continue this trend. Candidate Clinton proclaimed, “You have to be for changing business as usual in Washington.” The “motor-voter” bill and Congress’s campaign finance reform package both serve only to retrench the old guard.
Congress intends to pass a campaign finance reform package similar to the bill (also known as S.3) vetoed by President Bush last year. The public financing and spending limits in these bills would reinstate the complete provisions of the original S.3044, upon which our present campaign finance system is based. That bill contained mandatory spending limits, limits on independent spending by national parties, and contribution limits. The Senate version of the bill included public financing of congressional campaigns as well.
The Senate’s public financing provisions were dropped from S.3044 in the House-Senate conference committee, and the bill’s mandatory spending limits were ultimately invalidated by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo. Still, what remained of the bill was enough to secure incumbents comfortably in elected office. While the 1974 law outlawed corporate donations and severely limited individual contributions, it gave Political Action Committees—then used primarily by labor unions—a fivefold advantage over individual contributors. While PACs could give $5,000 per candidate, with no overall limit, individuals could give only $1,000 per candidate and no more than $25,000 total.
The predictable result was an explosion in the number and influence of special-interest PACs. In 1974,608 PACs spent under $20 million on congressional races. By 1988, there were 4,172 PACs pumping $150 million into House and Senate races. The overwhelming majority of this money goes to incumbents. A Federal Election Commission (FEC) study found that, despite (or perhaps in response to) the general public’s distaste for politicians in 1992, PAC giving was up 14 percent. In House races incumbents received 97 percent of this PAC money; in the Senate incumbents received 92 percent. As one memo circulated at a company that relics on government contracts explained: “Access to these people is theoretically not bought, but if you want to see them in a timely manner, it is expected for us to make a contribution.” The 1974 “reforms” worked like magic.
In 1974, less than 88 percent of House incumbents won reelection. By 1988, that figure had risen to a near perfect 98.5 percent. The margins also widened. Incumbents unopposed or winning by margins of over 20 points jumped from 69 percent to 86 percent during that period.
The new reforms pick up right where the old ones left off. Congress and the Clinton administration have presented plans that still favor special interest money, but they include as well both the public financing and spending limits that did not survive the first round of reforms. In the jujitsu of congressional reform, failure of a portion of the earlier approach justifies its consummation. Disgust with the special-interest politics engendered by the 1974 bill prompted Congress to promise that a few hundred million more tax dollars will cleanse the corruptive influence of private sector money from elections. Of course, public financing also places the purse strings of election financing in its own capable hands.
Tax money will finance qualifying House candidates with matching funds (equaling the first $200 of individual contributions) and House and Senate races with postal subsidies and vouchers for television air time. Spending limits are set at $600,000 for House races and from $950,000 to $5.5 million for Senate races. The theoretically voluntary spending limits are expected to pass constitutional muster this time around, but candidates whose opponents exceed the limits receive lavish direct federal aid. The House is now as enthusiastic to use tax money for campaigning as was the Senate’s biggest public financing proponent, Ted Kennedy, back in 1974, when he contended that public financing could “end the corrosive and corruptive influence of private money in public life.”
The same animus suffused the halls of Congress again when S.3 was debated last year. Public financing combined with spending limits was preached by supporters of last year’s campaign finance bill as the way to “end the money chase.” This is perplexing because incumbents don’t need to engage in a “money chase.” Many incumbents begin campaign season with a war chest left over from the previous election that exceeds the entire amount most challengers will raise. This not only scares off prospective challengers, but also, when the going gets tough for incumbents (as with the 1992 elections), enables them to battle their opponents with buckets of money. In 1992, 36 incumbents spent over one million dollars apiece—six times the number of seven-figure spenders in 1990. This includes many eminent advocates of the $600,000 spending limits in the House portion of last year’s campaign finance reform bill. Among these are Democratic Representatives Steny Hoyer and Martin Frost ($1.5 million each) and David Bonior ($1.3 million). Indeed, the House sponsor of the campaign “reform” bill, Sam Gejdenson, spent nearly a million. And it is not as though they were backed against the wall by big-spending challengers. Their opponents all spent less than 20 percent of the money they did.
Public financing will give incumbents the kind of security they now enjoy without the distasteful indignity of grubbing for money from special interests. It would also make them nearly as insulated from the special interests as they now are from the average voter. Congressionally written campaign laws have historically cultivated private money sources favorable to incumbents. Public financing will force taxpayers to spend millions on the election campaigns of every qualifying candidate, while increasing elected officials’ control of the money. Having incumbents write campaign laws is certainly a conflict of interest.
While public money eases campaigning chores for incumbents, spending limits will chasten ambitious challengers. Challengers need to raise a threshold amount (at least $200,000) before even gaining credibility and name recognition. Incumbents begin with both. Given that incumbents start the race with a healthy lead, the reform bill’s spending limits could prevent challengers from mounting the kind of campaign needed to overcome it.
Moreover, incumbent congressmen already have enormous taxpayer-funded resources at their disposal. Amazingly, the spending restrictions in the new reform proposals overlook all of these. For example, though ostensibly not for campaign purposes, the flood of franked mail peaks directly prior to elections, as near as the law allows. In 1990, the House exceeded its $44 million-dollar franked mail budget by some $31 million. The House appropriated a whopping $80 million for its postage costs for 1992, plus another $32 million for the Senate’s. Former Senator Pete Wilson, who called the extensive use of the franking privilege a “clear case of abuse,” estimated that the 800 million pieces of mail Congress sent out in 1988 weighed as much as 746 Greyhound buses. Only about 8 percent of this is in direct response to constituent inquiries. Taxpayers also pay for an incumbent’s full-time staff and office in his home district, a television studio on Capitol Hill, travel, and hundreds of other things. Incumbents enjoy lavish free media coverage, and few others can keep receiving their paychecks while running a full-time campaign.
Of course, the complex funding scheme is fraught with loopholes, such as exemptions on fundraising limits for administrative expenses or costs incurred in complying with the bill’s complex bookkeeping and legal burdens. And, of course, those who wrote the rules will best know how to exploit the loopholes. The burden of complying with all the administrative minutiae will detract from legitimate political activities, particularly for political novices. And enforcement will run from spotty to nonexistent (the Federal Election Commission, which now only enforces spending limits on the presidential race, was still cleaning up accounts from the 1988 presidential campaign in mid-1992) or else the election bureaucracy will have to be vastly expanded to cover the approximately 1,000 more races every four years. The bottom line: the new campaign finance bill will mean more tax dollars, more government control, and inevitably, less competitive elections.
The other election reform bill, already passed by the House and Senate, is the “motor-voter” bill. The bill requires states to: one, register as voters those renewing or applying for a driver’s license; two, allow voter registration by mail; and, three, open registration sites at public assistance agencies and at military recruitment offices. In typical fashion, these mandates to the states are not funded. States struggling with their own deficits will have to expend scarce funds to meet the new federal dictates and to keep a lid on the voting fraud that the new processes will encourage. It is almost impossible to prevent fraud with mail-in registration, while the driver’s license registration would have insured the gentleman who detonated a rental truck under the World Trade Center of his right to vote. States are not allowed to require proof of citizenship of registrants.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that the bill will cost the federal government about $4.5 million each year. However, it will cost each state an average of $20 to $25 million per year for the first five years, plus a possible one-time cost of $60 to $70 million to computerize registration lists. The states could also be made liable for lawsuits resulting from state violations of the bill’s provisions.
Both the motor-voter bill and the new campaign finance reforms calcify the political status quo under the guise of reform. President Clinton cannot claim to be a reformer by acquiescing to a congressional desire to rig elections. Rather than “reinvent” government, Congress and the administration appear set to reinstate themselves as our governing elite.