A Few Quibbles About Clean Elections

Of course it’s true that the system of getting elected to public office in this country, if you step back and think about it, is insane. For a candidate to spend 50 percent–or is it 90 percent?–of available hours raising money from the tiny element of society that is wealthy enough to donate to politicians can only be a distorting, if not a demoralizing, experience. And for what? So the candidate can then go on television with 30-second simplicities crafted by professional marketers who are trained to think that ultimately hair style and wardrobe are more important than thoughtful public policy.

We would never design such a system if we were starting from the ground up. It is difficult to imagine people like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison sitting down to grapple with the question “How shall a representative democracy function?” and coming up with the answer, “We shall elect to high public office those gentlemen who collect the greatest amount of money and prove themselves most adept at insulting their opponents through paid advertising.”

We have always had some marriage of electioneering with political propaganda, but never on such a scale as today, and never at such expense. From the time the Founders drafted the Constitution, it took a century before Ohio industrialist Mark Hanna came along and developed (for Republican William McKinley in 1896) the kind of corporate-funded mass advertising campaign that has come to mark modern politics. And then it was another 60 years before television was invented, and a decade or two before TV became an integral part of our political culture.

It is commonly accepted now that money has taken over politics, and that television advertising is where campaigns are won and lost, and that something should be done about it. Even some who have been able to play the game are uneasy. Arnold Hiatt, the former president of the Stride Rite Corp., has been one of the top political donors in the nation. Yet last year on the op-ed page of The Boston Globe he argued that a system in which major corporations and wealthy individuals provide most of the money spent on elections “is corrupting the democratic process in the most fundamental way.” And Hiatt went a step further: “If you’re not a big donor, what you’re getting from government amounts to taxation without representation.”

But what should be done? There is nothing less awe-inspiring than watching Congress attempt to address the problem. Newspapers have devoted voluminous coverage to the never-ending machinations surrounding legislation to “ban soft money,” or to “rein in the special interests.” Does anybody feel the need to read this coverage? It may be one of the most important news stories of the decade, but it is surely one of the most profoundly boring, as well. We all know Congress isn’t going to separate the influence of money from politics. Even if by some miracle one of the much-touted “reform” measures were to pass the House or Senate, it is impossible to believe that the “special interests” would be in any way diminished or that we would reestablish free, fair, and open democratic elections.

Some activists in Washington concluded as much a couple of years ago. Ellen Miller, a respected voice of sanity with the Center for Responsive Politics, helped set up a group called Public Campaign in 1996. Among her founding funders was Arnold Hiatt. The thinking in Public Campaign circles is that campaign finance reform is an issue that must be taken to the states–and that publicly financed elections are the most promising solution on the horizon. Voters in Maine approved a public financing proposal in 1996 under the hopeful banner of “clean elections.” The Vermont legislature followed suit in 1997. And this year a clean elections proposal will be on the ballot in Massachusetts. The law being proposed by initiative petition asks candidates to voluntarily accept total spending limits and to restrict campaign contributions to $100. In exchange, candidates for the Legislature and for the statewide offices would get a set amount of public money, partly financed by the current taxpayer check-off system already in place, and partly funded (if the Legislature so chooses) by general fund tax dollars. (How it would work: see page 70.)

So the ball is in our court. The Mass Voters for Clean Elections campaign is being managed by David Donnelly, who ran the campaign in Maine. The signature drive to get the proposal on the ballot was joined by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, two groups that see passage of the clean elections law as the top priority of a “Democracy 2001” effort they announced in partnership this spring. At the same time, a separate but related Boston-based effort is worth noting. John Bonifaz at the National Voting Rights Institute is waging court challenges to what he calls “the wealth primary” on the grounds that 14th Amendment guarantees of equal protection under the law are violated by our skewed system of campaign finance.

Clearly, Massachusetts has the potential to become a hotbed of revolt against the current system of “taxation without representation,” as Hiatt so provocatively put it. It is a good bet voters will approve the clean elections law in November; there is as yet no organized opposition. Activists will be pushing for the highest margin possible, so as to make an impression on the Legislature when the battle shifts to getting the law funded. (An initiative petition cannot create an appropriation–that power is reserved to the Legislature.) Early polling suggests 70 percent of the electorate believes campaign finance reform is “urgently needed” at both the federal and state level, and that support for the clean elections proposal is in the 60 to 75 percent range.

For those who want the short course, then, class is dismissed. The people want money out of politics. They are willing to vote for public funding so as to have clean elections. Massachusetts will lead the nation to reform. Readers who want no equivocation on this matter should feel free to turn the page. To the polls for clean elections!

And yet, I must now confess that something–maybe it’s more than one thing–about this movement to change the laws of campaign finance bothers me. It’s not the activists–they are hard to dislike. From what I can tell, Donnelly and Joshua Friedes at Common Cause and Nancy Carapezza at LWV are in this fight for the best of reasons. They want to disperse power–which as far as I’m concerned is the noblest reason to be in politics. As well, Bonifaz’s challenge to the “wealth primary” makes a compelling point: Though we have improved on the Framers’ vision of representative democracy in many respects–abolishing slavery, extending the franchise to women, making voting more fair and open with civil rights laws–we have fallen backward by allowing the rule of “one person, one vote” to be undermined by elections that are paid for almost entirely by private, wealthy interests.

Because most of us accept that’s true nationally, and because most voters believe it to be true of their state legislatures, we are asked to assume it is true about state politics in Massachusetts, as well. Yet what is the evidence the clean elections law is attacking the right problem in this state? Is it really tailored to reform the system we have here, or is it a generic proposal that addresses brush fires in places like Maine and Massachusetts while forests burn in places like Washington, D.C. and Texas and California? And why should we believe that a new public financing system will change politics in any meaningful way in this state? What exactly is wrong here that we are trying to fix?

A memorable and enduring image of Beacon Hill politics emerged from The Boston Globe‘s 1993 Spotlight investigation of relationships between lobbyists and legislators. Photographs of House Speaker Charles Flaherty and pals on a faraway beach and of Senate President William Bulger being wined and dined with industry representatives in Hawaii confirmed in the public mind the way business is done in the Legislature. The Globe‘s beach coverage gave Common Cause an opening to push a ballot initiative that would have set a $100 limit on contributions. But the Legislature acted in 1994 to head off the Common Cause measure and passed its own campaign finance reform law that limited lobbyists to $200 contributions to campaigns and barred them from making gifts of any sort to public officials. The law also set a $500 limit on individual and political action committee contributions.

That attempt at reform also enhanced a small-scale public financing program. Since 1976, state tax forms have had a check-off box for contributions to a State Election Campaign Fund, which has raised paltry amounts to be divided up between candidates for the six constitutional offices. The 1994 law redirected the available money to the governor’s race exclusively. (This year, there is only about $1.8 million in the fund; the limit for a governor’s race is set at $3 million per candidate. Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci has already decided to exceed the cap, so the $1.8 million will be divided up between the other candidates for governor.)

Beyond curtailing blatant socializing and gift-giving between lobbyists and legislators, the 1994 reforms have made little difference. Most activists now admit that the $500 contribution limit has been ineffective, or even counterproductive. Candidates have to spend more time raising money when it comes in smaller chunks. Some see that as putting challengers at an even greater disadvantage.

Most activists now admit that limiting contributions to $500 has been ineffective.

The weaknesses of that law, however, only confirm the conviction among clean elections activists that spending limits alone are not enough–if candidates are going to agree to go small-scale in their own fundraising, they have to be rewarded with a source of “clean” money. That’s where public financing comes in. Recognizing that the tax check-off method will not adequately fund statewide races and campaigns for state representative and state senator, the clean elections law envisions about $14 million a year in general fund revenues to make the system work.

Advocates envision $14 million a year for a system of public financing.

Yet the measure is based on the assumption it will continue to cost a lot to run for office: It sets a $3 million pricetag on a governor’s race. Those who opt out of the public financing option can spend $5 million … or $10 million. The clean elections law, of course, does not propose that anything be done with regard to television advertising–the “air wars” can remain as shallow and manipulative–and expensive–as ever. According to the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling, the First Amendment protects candidates’ rights to spend as much as they want in whatever ways they want. Constitutionally, then, there is only so much a state law can do. (Although Vermont has challenged Buckley v. Valeo head-on by setting mandated spending limits. Stay tuned.) The clean elections approach is to entice candidates to voluntarily spend comparable amounts and to change the source of the funding. The gambit is that the playing field can be more level and the money can be less “tainted.”

The very idea that we will be making elections “clean” obviously implies that the money candidates currently raise is dirty. That didn’t sit so well with legislators this spring when they held a hearing on the proposed law–which pretty much took on a “Hey mister, who you callin’ dirty?” tone. When such a matter as “leveling the playing field” between challengers and incumbents comes before the Legislature, one might expect the incumbency-protection racket to exert some influence. And it did, as the law was buried by the Ways and Means Committee and never heard from again. House Speaker Tom Finneran subsequently labeled the matter “trivial” and declared that even if the voters pass the measure it will not be funded.

But there is another level to this discussion that one picks up on inside The Building that is more serious, and worth considering. It is not likely to be heard beyond the whisper level in the ballot campaign this fall. Every politician knows that voters don’t want to hear any claptrap that sounds like a defense of the status quo. At the same time, it is the politicians who work in the State House who tend to have a more nuanced understanding of how power really works in state politics. Of course, none of them feel themselves to be “corrupted” by money they raise. The honest ones will admit to at least occasional discomfort at having to ask interested parties for campaign contributions. At any rate, the important question is this: Are the campaign finance laws that we have now in any way related to the way the Legislature functions? Are they related to the way the governor performs? Or the lieutenant governor, or the attorney general?

The clear assumption of the clean elections movement is that “big money,” i.e., money from the business sector, is unduly influencing the course of state government. A useful exercise, then, would be to attempt to make a correlation between campaign laws and policies. Look back to the days of the Frank Sargent administration in the 1970s, or in the Dukakis era that followed. Few people would argue that in those days state government was subservient to corporate interests. On the contrary, a brand of liberalism reigned that was seen as downright hostile to business interests. Yet that was when money flowed more freely than it does now. In recent years, the state has been bending over backwards to be seen as “business friendly.” This change has come at the very time campaign finance laws were strengthened.

From looking at the Legislature in its last two sessions, we can see that money doesn’t always win the day. The money that the tobacco lobby has spent, for example, didn’t prevent the Legislature from passing higher tobacco taxes, or writing the first-in-the-nation law that requires disclosure of cigarette ingredients and additives. Likewise, casino interests have not been able to grease the wheels for various legalized gambling proposals. But those are unloved industries, and of course the outcomes would be different if this were North Carolina or Louisiana.

The multiple tax breaks granted to certain other industries in recent months are cited as evidence the deck is stacked. There is no question that well-financed lobbying campaigns brought about changes in the tax laws that were beneficial to Raytheon Corp. and to Fidelity Investments, the giant mutual fund concern. Most of us would like to be able to hire a lobbying team that could directly benefit our bottom line. But it’s worth noting that there were reasons other than campaign contributions that these tax breaks passed: Labor unions were in favor of the Raytheon cut, and the Fidelity break came in exchange for the Boston-based company’s promise to create a certain amount of new jobs in this state. If the Legislature was bought off, it was bought off with hard-to-resist arguments as much as anything else. Would $100 contributions prevent that from happening?

Let’s take one more example from the recent session, since we’re likely to hear more about it this fall. The largest lobbyist frenzy in years attended to the law that passed this spring deregulating the electric utilities. The State House became a Gucci Gulch of paid influencers. There is every possibility that electricity consumers didn’t get the bargain of the century. But why not? In real life, it’s not as simple as drawing a straight line between utility money and legislators’ acquiescence. What also happened is that the opposition broke down. Some environmentalists backed the law, some consumer advocates vacillated, and there was no unified, countervailing force that legislators could turn to. In the House, there probably weren’t four people who could speak intelligently on this complex piece of legislation. The natural tendency is to look to the leadership. In this case the matter was entrusted to Rep. Daniel Bosley, a smart fellow respected by his colleagues. Would publicly funded elections fill the House with independent-minded lawmakers who would have better ideas about how to deregulate the electric industry so that consumers could save 20 percent off their bills instead of 10 percent?

The clean elections campaign will, no doubt, benefit from the cartoonish understanding of the Legislature that many voters cherish. Namely, that everyone’s on the take. In fact, most legislators are irrelevant to the making of major public policy decisions, and thus don’t have access to the big money. What happens in the State House happens because the House Speaker and the Senate President decree it will happen. Both of those leaders are influenced but not controlled by campaign contributors. Would anyone argue that Senate President Tom Birmingham is a tool of the corporate sector? His sympathies, in fact, tend to be with organized labor–and not because of campaign money but because of who he is and where he’s from.

Does money control the governorship? Big money didn’t stop Mike Dukakis from being elected three times. Certainly the business sector breathed easier when William Weld became governor. But was it the power of the corporate sector that elevated Weld? Or was it Weld’s weird charm? Does anyone believe Mark Roosevelt would have won in 1994 if only Roosevelt could have matched Weld’s spending dollar-for-dollar?

So we return to the question: What is wrong with Massachusetts politics? Is it money, or is it something else? To begin to get at an answer, let’s imagine what will happen next year in the Legislature if the clean elections law is approved by the voters. If it passes by a 51 to 49 percent margin almost certainly the law will not get funded–it will not be seen as having a strong enough mandate. But if it passes with 75 percent of the vote, there is still a good chance nothing will happen. It all depends on whether House Speaker Finneran decides to be intransigent and prevent public financing, as he has already indicated he will. And since most State House leaders do not accept the idea they are taking “dirty” money, it will be easy for them to conclude the voters are misguided about this and not press the issue. If Finneran provides them cover, many will be secretly relieved, even as they protest the heavy-handed tactics of the Speaker in thwarting the people’s will. Those who believe in campaign finance reform will rail against the arrogance of the leaders on Beacon Hill. And they will be right. There is an arrogance that seems to be almost engineered into the workings of the place. It’s one of the reasons the electorate holds the Legislature in such low esteem. Most voters, if they stop to think about it, know they have no real influence on the House Speaker or the Senate President, which is to say they have no influence over their legislative branch. It begins to feel like taxation without representation.

Is that something the clean elections law can solve? Only in the most theoretical, somewhere-down-the-road way. If the law succeeded in creating more competitive elections for legislative seats, and if a new breed of people’s tribune were to take those seats, and if a strong block of maverick democrats revolted against the power of the Speaker and the Senate President and succeeded in democratizing the House and Senate… But that is a lot to imagine. If arrogant and unresponsive state leaders are the root problems, campaign finance reform has only a hit-or-miss chance of dealing with that.

So what should activists do if and when the clean elections law is passed by the voters and disposed of by the Legislature? The most relevant parallel is the movement in the 1980s that gave us Proposition 2 1/2, the property tax limitation law. Prop. 2 1/2 was passed by initiative petition; legislators didn’t like it and would never have approved it themselves. As originally passed the law had kinks in it, but lawmakers nonetheless resolved to make it work. They knew passions ran hot against rising property taxes and the voters were serious about it. Even now, some leaders would like to undo the law’s restrictions, but Prop. 2 1/2 seems to have achieved “sacred cow” status.

That wasn’t by accident. A lot of tireless work by anti-tax activist Barbara Anderson had something to do with it, along with her small but vociferous network. Can the clean elections movement pull off the same feat? The challenge is of a different sort. Anderson marshaled statewide support for limiting taxes. The clean elections network has to rally people to the cause of spending tax money. Whether the effort prevails will depend on how deep is the public sense that publicly funded elections can make their lives better by making politics better.

My own suspicion is that the clean elections law will be another partial reform and that it won’t make much difference in Massachusetts politics. Even if it were to be funded at $14 million next year and tried for an election cycle or two, what’s to guarantee that in the next recession the funds won’t be summarily cut from the budget?

Maybe such qualms miss the point. As much as anything else, the clean elections effort here is meant to advance the cause of campaign finance reform nationally–to speed up the day when Congress is forced to think seriously about publicly funded federal elections. But if our role is to blaze the trail, why not really blaze it?

Public financing makes good democratic sense only when considered in the current context. But the current context is the problem. It simply costs too much to run for high public office. Too much money gets spent for too little public purpose. Which is to say, public financing doesn’t come to grips with the way television has changed the democratic process, turning elections into ad campaigns. In fact, the clean elections approach is to subsidize advertising, and thus the broadcast industry–as if its shameful neglect of its civic obligations should be rewarded!

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
Those are matters a statewide ballot campaign can’t address. But if Massachusetts is to continue to be a cradle of revolt against the system it may require getting in touch with our radical roots. In my view, it would mean finding ways to experiment with free and extended television time in the final weeks of a campaign. It would mean thinking seriously about first a two-party system and then perhaps a three-party system. Proportional representation ought to be looked at as a way to break down entrenched power. In this state, where there are plenty of affluent givers who don’t toe the corporate line, it wouldn’t hurt to raise the contribution limit back up to $1,000, as long as we insisted on full and timely disclosure. And as for citizen influence on the Legislature, something has to be done to bring the House Speaker and the Senate President into respectful dialogue with voters all around the state, not just in their own districts. Since they function as statewide decision-makers their constituency is all of us. Perhaps legislative sessions need to be shortened so the top leaders can get out more.

Even still, none of that is as radical as your garden-variety town meeting–which after all these years moves steadily along on the principle that self-rule is worth getting out of the house for. What bothers me about campaign finance reform is what bothers me about term limits. In the search for procedural fixes, there is something of an attempt to escape from politics. But the influence of special interests, or the influence of the business lobby, or for that matter the influence of the bureaucracy itself, cannot be legislated away. It can only be met. It is often said that the only match for organized money is organized people. If that’s true, the answer is politics–not the flight from politics. The effort of Mass Voters for Clean Elections is a step forward, no question. It puts deep questions about the life of our democracy on the public agenda. But for the movement to amount to much, the work will have to begin in earnest after Election Day.