January 2009



by Peter Bearse


Campaign finance reform has failed. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act [a.k.a. "BCRA" or "McCain-Feingold"] serves primarily to employ a larger staff at 99 E St., N.W. in Washington [the Federal Election Commission, or FEC]. The last election has served as a nail in the coffin of the Act -- the nation's first billion+ dollar election -- more confirmation of the old saying of an infamous Philadelphia Congressman: "money talks and bullshit walks." Obama's denial of public financing provided another nail, if one was needed. It is ironic that reformers call for public financing as the CFR flavor of the day, now featured, moreover, as the be-all and end-all of CFR efforts. This call provides an implicit recognition that their past efforts have indeed failed.


The major reason why a new approach is needed is that BCRA has failed to end the financial arms race that Congressional campaigns have become. It also failed to recognize the value of people's volunteer contributions of time. A book released four years ago anticipated CFR's failure and outlined an alternative. See WE THE PEOPLE: A Conservative Populism, p. 357. This approach, still new now, was ignored at the time even though it was presented to the Business Advisory Council of the Campaign Reform Project, Campaign for America by its author, this author, as then a member of the Council.


Any realistic CFR initiative starts with the simple recognition that there are only two factors that count in business and politics: time and money. Thus, time is the only real antidote to the dominance of money. If people don't commit time to help with campaigns, money necessarily dominates. Of course, time is not a perfect substitute for money. Time and money are complements insofar as money is needed to buy campaign materials [e.g., brochures and signs] that volunteers need to help them get candidates' messages out.


The key to real change in campaign finance is to find a way to limit money expenditures so that campaigns are impelled to spend more time dialing for people than dollars. Such a way would simultaneously honor the two goals implied earlier: (1) End the financial arms race; and (2) Build a people-based politics. A new approach to effect these would include the following features:


                     Media expenditure limits for campaigns should be established based upon minimum requirements for candidates to get their message(s) out.


                     No expenditure limits should be in effect for additional expenditures arising from the utilization of political volunteers or paid personnel employed to "get the message out" via direct contacts with potential voters. In other words, expenditures tied to the time that people take reaching out to other people via direct, person-to-person encounters with them would enable unlimited amounts to be spent above expenditure limits for other forms of campaign outreach and message deliveries to potential voters. Amounts "unlimited" in principle, however, would be limited in practice by the number of volunteers that a campaign or political committee could attract and mobilize to utilize political materiel produced and paid for.


                     A rulemaking procedure through which the FEC would reformulate and strenghten pre-BRCA regulations to require "soft money" to be devoted to "party building" -- so that they serve to build up local party infrastructures and promote people's political participation through local party committees. The winning genius of the Obama campaign was his doing what political parties should have been doing for years other than serving as big money laundries -- rebuilding party organizational foundations, "local party infra-structures" at the levels of ward, precinct and neighborhood. The problem leftover from 2008 victories, however is that many of the local initiatives set up for the Obama campaign have no legal standing. What is being done to integrate Obama volunteers into local Democratic Committees, which do have legal standing?


                     Public financing only for political party-building activities, on a shared public/party/ private matching funds' basis to and through parties that qualify (say, those that receive 5% of the vote in a relevant election. No public financing of individuals' campaigns should be allowed.


                     A tax credit of up to $200 per person for time contributed to political committees or campaigns. Time contributions of at least $200 divided by the minimum wage would have to be validated by two independent sources.


The key underlying assumption being made here is that such an approach would pass federal Constitutional muster even though the Supreme Court has already ruled against campaign expenditure limits for Congressional candidates. The fact that overall expenditures are not limited suggests that legal challenges based upon the First Amendment would not succeed. Unlimited expenditures to enable the real voices of real people to be heard via person-to-person encounters rather than electronic media would move a people-based politics to center stage and "money as speech" via the media backstage. We would turn parties back to competing for people rather than money.


Unfortunately, there is no room here for a detailed critique of the public financing approach -- as an answer to the replacement of money for people in politics, the antidote to political corruption or other claims made for it. Suffice to say that:


1. It's ironic that reformers who advocate public financing "to get money out of politics" talk only of money while discounting the role of people. So, public financing would not end the financial arms race; it would only substitute public for private money in the race.


2. The key critique is that public financing does little or nothing to bring people back into the process as volunteers to take back what should be their politics from the political pro's, media mavens and other politically self-interested actors.

Reformers have repeatedly ignored warnings that "money will find its way." Thus, CFR initiatives focused only on money will continue to fail. Money devoted to media rather than people serve to diminish people's role, de-skill them as citizen producers of politics, and reinforce their role as consumers of media advertising.


The "new approach" set forth here has not been fleshed out in all essential details. Yet, "the devil is in the details" of any approach. There may also be objections to be addressed. Thus, let's get a discussion going to flesh out additional details and ensure that we have a complete model that truly works to fulfill the goals set forth earlier.