This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

December 5, 2005

Dan Foster

Two-pronged finance reform could ease voter cynicism

I’m often asked what one policy change would cause the most improvement in government. Without hesitation, I reply: comprehensive campaign finance reform, or more specifically a system that at least includes some form of public funding for candidates seeking office.

While twice running successfully for the Legislature, I found most of this unique process fascinating. Fundraising has not yet become an overwhelming task, as in each case I accumulated more money than my opponents. But I have never enjoyed this aspect of a campaign. Yes, it is necessary to have money to run for office, but the time and energy involved take away from what is most important — listening to voters, answering their questions and openly discussing the issues.

The 2004 election was unquestionably the most expensive in U.S. history with several billion dollars being raised and spent in support of candidates and issues. With this kind of money moving through the system, it’s easy to see why Americans are cynical about politics. The perception is that special-interest dollars from wealthy, well-connected individuals to both political parties buy increased access to policymakers and perhaps much more. Unfortunately, perception is all too often reality.

There are several recognized benefits of public financing systems:

  • There is increased electoral competition as more new and not-so-new candidates run for office. Uncontested races, which stifle the democratic process, are rare.
  • Candidates can concentrate on running issue-oriented campaigns, rather than being distracted raising money.
  • Candidates with less access to wealthy private contributions are able to wage very competitive campaigns. Although challengers attain near financial parity, there are still numerous advantages of incumbency.
  • Most importantly, successful candidates would be less encumbered by special-interest money and all the undue influence that goes with it.

    All of these positive changes have been seen in both Maine and Arizona, where voluntary public financing programs were implemented in 2000. In both states, there are increasing numbers of candidates running with no personal or other private funding, and uncontested races are almost nonexistent. In fact, in Arizona’s last gubernatorial campaign, both candidates in the general election ran only with public funds. Yet, legislators from most other states seem reluctant to adopt the system, as the stigma of “welfare for politicians” is difficult to overcome.

    Obviously, there was bipartisan support for the bill passed in the Legislature’s September special session regulating so-called 527 groups, and the enactment certainly increases the potential to control money in elections. Unfortunately, the full effect of true public financing is missing, and as we’ve seen with other attempts at campaign finance reform, it always appears that big money can find ways to circumvent the law.

    Is there a better way to fund races without appealing to special interests? Can this be done and still please both those who don’t like removing restrictions on campaign contributions and those who have a philosophical objection to funding campaigns with tax dollars? If this were possible, would the political will exist to enact such legislation?

    The answer to these questions is just maybe, particularly if you consider the ideas of Jonathan Rauch, a Washington columnist. In an article several years ago, he presented a compromise that could fulfill the needs of a variety of entrenched constituencies. His approach simply makes the assumption that money in politics is a reality to be managed, rather than an evil to be eliminated. The approach joins two divergent ideas — first, public campaign financing for those who agree not to take any private or personal funds, and second, instant disclosure of all nonpublic contributions, but no other constraints on the source and amounts of these funds.

    The system would be simple. Candidates who qualified through some specific process would receive enough public funding to run a competitive campaign. In exchange, they would pledge not to take any private contributions or use personal wealth. For those who decide not to use public funding, private spending by individuals, groups or the candidates themselves would be instantly disclosed and reported, with absolutely no mandated limits.

    Instead of using unenforceable rules, this approach would ensure that one of the most important issues in every campaign would be how candidates are financed. Voters would know completely how a campaign is being funded, and candidates would have to decide if they wanted to go the public or private route. The dialogue would likely include what politicians should do, rather than what they legally can do.

    Solutions to the great public policy issues of the day, including health care, education, taxation, economic development and business regulation, will take much longer if big-money interests control the debate. Cynicism of Americans about how the political process functions would also sadly remain unchanged. For these reasons, I’m convinced that separating special-interest money from politics is more important than any other legislative need on the horizon.

    Recent publicity about legal problems of Congress members has certainly heightened the sense of desperation of our citizens about what can be done. This hopelessness was evident as far back as 1997 in a poll in which Americans indicated they would be more likely to see Elvis than to experience true campaign finance reform. Hopefully, with a little luck and using this model of reform, we could make the odds at least 50-50.

    Foster is a Charleston physician and state senator.


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