Post date: March 22, 2001
Q: Can you briefly describe the different campaign finance plans being discussed in Congress?
A: The starting point in the current debate in Congress is, of course, the McCain-Feingold-Cochran bill, which seeks to address concerns about the influence of money in politics in a variety of ways. Among its major components are a ban on soft money contributions by corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals, doubling of hard money contributions to State political parties—from $5,000 to $10,000—and increasing total individual aggregate yearly contributions—from $25,000 to $30,000. It would also place restrictions on so-called “phony issue ads” run within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election.
The primary alternative is the Hagel-Landrieu bill, or, as it’s more formally known, the Open and Accountable Campaign Financing Act of 2001. This bill also seeks to address the impact of money on politics but in different ways and is more lenient to soft money. Among its major provisions are requirements for more frequent disclosure of contributors, a $60,000 indexed cap on soft money contributions, and increased individual, PAC, committee, and party hard money contribution limits.
Q: Recent reports indicate that Senate Democrats raised more soft money than Senate Republicans. Do you believe this puts the Democrats in a difficult position—pushing for soft money reform while raising more of it?
A: Overall, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ figures for the 1999-2000 election cycle, while Democrats and Republicans were nearly even in raising soft money, Republicans had a substantial advantage in hard money. This certainly raises difficult questions for the Democrats—by eliminating soft money, they may be increasing the absolute dollar advantage of Republicans.
Q: What do you think will be the ultimate outcome of the campaign finance debate?
A: It’s too early to tell, but it’s likely that we can expect some reform. If we look at McCain-Feingold as one end of the spectrum and Hagel-Landrieu at the other, even here there are areas of agreement. For example, both bills include a prohibition on fundraising on federal property.
Q: Republicans argue that those who are represented by unions should be allowed to decide whether their dues are used for political purposes. Should stockholders be granted the same privilege with regard to corporate contributions?
A: In general, both unions and corporations are prohibited from making direct political contributions to federal campaigns. They can contribute soft money to political parties; they are allowed to establish PACs that accept individual contributions; they are also allowed to communicate with their own members and their families—or stockholders, executive or administrative employees, and their families—and undertake nonpartisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities targeted to these people.
Under McCain-Feingold-Cochran, labor unions would be required to notify non-union employees represented by unions that if they file an objection, they would be entitled to have their agency fees reduced by an amount equal to the portion of fees used for political purposes.
One could envision a parallel provision that would require a corporate accounting of all monies spent for political purposes, a determination of the pro rata amount of those contributions for each stock issued and allow stockholders a rebate. This might be especially important during a time when many people hold stock through pension plans and would prefer to have that money put in their retirement accounts, rather than spent for political purposes.
Q: The Supreme Court has ruled that money is equivalent to speech. Do you think this is a matter of “settled law” or is this open to reinterpretation?
A: The most recent ruling on money and elections—Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC—shows diverse and evolving views on the Court [regarding] the First Amendment and political contributions. Indeed, Justice Stevens in his concurrence stated: “I make one simple point. Money is property; it is not speech.”
Q: Can you describe the Appleseed Electoral Reform Project and the role it will play in the debate?
A: The Harvard Law School Appleseed Electoral Reform Project was created to broaden the debate about electoral reform and democracy through research, discussion, and scholarship. It also works to facilitate change by mobilizing law students and scholars to partner with and assist those in the field. It is committed to a deeper and broader strategy of inquiry and engagement—to approaching issues of electoral reform in the context of one general question: What can promote the redemption of American democracy?
Our role in the debate is to raise questions and concerns that will help policy makers and the public to make informed decisions. Our overall goal it to promote the democratic participation of all Americans.
Q: Do you personally have a reform proposal that you would like to see implemented?
A: I believe that among the possible solutions that should be considered, some of which are not currently being debated in Congress, are free or low cost television time, tax credits for those who make political contributions, and public financing of elections.
These approaches provide resources to those who may otherwise not have a voice in our electoral process. Indeed, the only reason campaign financing is an issue is because of the tension between wealth inequality and our cherished values and belief in democratic, one-person, one-vote, political equality.
If everyone were wealthy, anyone who wanted to speak in a voice that could be heard would have the ability to speak and be heard. Financing becomes a concern when elected officials hear only small but wealthy constituencies of contributors, rather than broader constituencies made up of average Americans.
One way this tension can be addressed, and free speech and debate promoted, is to provide greater resources to those who would otherwise be limited in their to ability to speak, because they lack the wealth necessary to communicate through the mass media, which is one of our primary avenues for political debate.
Tax credits for political contributions, free and low cost television time, and the public financing of elections are ways to provide those resources.