Campaign Finance Reform
by John Byrne Barry
Last June, in response to a question from their audience in Claremont,
N.H., President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- who didn't
agree on much of anything in those days -- agreed to establish a
blue-ribbon panel on campaign-finance and lobbying reform. The gesture
was a huge crowd-pleaser, and made a great photo op. But it proved
empty. A year later, there is no panel. And the money trail from
polluters to politicians continues unabated.
You might question the sincerity of politicians when it comes to what
one California power broker called "the mother's milk of politics." But
even genuine reformers, including those in the Sierra Club, have
trouble reaching consensus on how to clean up the system. "The best
long-term way to reduce polluters' and developers' influence on
environmental legislation," says Political Committee volunteer Lisa
Santacroce, "is to reform campaign financing."
The $64,000 question is: How?
It's no secret that special-interest money is driving much of the
anti-environmental legislation in the current Congress. For example,
Alaska Rep. Don Young (R), the chair of the House Resources Committee,
who received $114,000 from oil and gas companies for his 1994 campaign,
has been leading the fight to drill for oil in the Arctic National
Under the current system, says Dan Sullivan, treasurer of the Club's
Political Committee in California, "there's a built-in conflict between
private profits and the general public interest. In order to get
elected, candidates need to raise exorbitant sums of money, and the
only way they can usually do that is from those corporations that have
an interest in weaker environmental laws."
"I'm not sure whether money actually buys votes," says Santacroce, "but
it certainly buys access. If an elected official has two people on the
telephone, one who gave $1,000 to his or her campaign and another who's
just a regular voter, who do you think is going to get put on hold?"
In addition, she says, good qualified candidates are not running for
public office because they don't want to spend every day asking people
for money. In 1994, the average cost of winning a House seat was
$516,126, a 300 percent increase (adjusted for inflation) over 1974,
and the cost of capturing a Senate seat soared to $4.6 million. In
1994, every winning senator spent at least $1 million.
Another problem, says Club Executive Director Carl Pope, is that money,
in and of itself, tends to displace issues and volunteers from
political campaigns. "Money generates negative campaigning," he says.
"People will only listen to positive 30-second spots for so long, but
they seem to have an insatiable willingness to be influenced by
character assassination. Negative campaigning, in turn, drives away
volunteers and drowns out issue discussion. We need to get candidates
off the tube and out into the community."
While it's easy to make a case that cleaning up the way campaigns are
financed would improve environmental policy, it's not so easy figuring
out what the best approach to reform is or how to generate
the political muscle to achieve that reform. Money has a way of sliding
around the barriers erected to stop it, and the Supreme Court has at
least temporarily blocked many of the most promising approaches.
Nor, given these legal barriers, is it easy to define exactly what role
the Sierra Club and its members can play.
That's why, in response to growing demand from the grassroots to take
on this issue -- for example, a 1993 resolution from the Allegheny
Group and Pennsylvania Chapter -- the Club's Political Committee
created a campaign finance task force last summer to develop a
framework to address these issues.
The task force is chaired by Santacroce, and includes Sullivan,
longtime campaign finance reform volunteer Bill Keane of Pittsburgh and
Lynn Frock of Cincinnati.
"Our charge is not to tell people what approach to take," says
Santacroce, "but we want to spell out why we believe this issue is
important and the directions we'd like to see things move."
The Legacy of Watergate
In the wake of Watergate, Congress passed campaign finance reform
legislation in 1974 that set strict contribution limits of $5,000 for
political action committees (PACs) and $1,000 per individual. But
despite that landmark law, the influence of money is arguably stronger
today than during the heyday of the Nixon White House.
That's partly because wealthy contributors have found their way around
these limits through "soft money" contributions and independent
expenditure campaigns (IEC), neither of which have limits. More
important, the Supreme Court threw out parts of the 1974 law, ruling
that limiting a candidate's ability to spend his or her money to get
elected is a violation of free speech, and that even limiting
expenditures by candidates of contributed money was a free-speech
violation. That effectively took spending limits off the table.
Soft money, which refers to contributions not regulated by federal
election law, is generally used for purposes like party-building and
get-out-the-vote efforts. The soft-money loophole resulted in an
estimated $82 million raised by the two parties for the 1992 national
elections. Soft money can be used for television ads supporting party
platforms, for example, but cannot name specific candidates.
Independent expenditure campaigns allow a PAC or individual to spend an
unlimited amount of money in support of (or in opposition to) a
candidate, but there can be no contact with the candidates. In the 1992
election, over 200 PACs and individuals spent $11.1 million in
independent expenditures. (The Sierra Club recently spent $125,000 on
its first independent expenditure campaign in support of Ron Wyden, who
won the Oregon Senate seat vacated by Bob Packwood.)
So does that mean that the Sierra Club, which was the 64th-largest PAC
in 1992 with $612,000 in contributions, should simply do more of what
everyone else is doing?
"We're never going to win this game as it's currently played," says
Santacroce. "We can try and change the rules, but in the meantime we
have to play by them if we want to have an influence."
Approaches to Reform
Most proposals for campaign finance reform include some combination of
contribution limits, spending limits and public financing. Other
elements include equal access to media, bans on soft money and gifts,
and limits on independent expenditures on behalf of candidates.
Despite inaction from Gingrich and Clinton, lawmakers from both parties
have been pushing reform bills in the House and Senate. The House bill,
introduced by Reps. Linda Smith (R-Wash.), Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) and
Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), would give candidates discounted
television advertising and mail rates if they voluntarily limited how
much of their own money they spend ($250,000 for Senate candidates,
$60,000 for House candidates). The Senate bill includes free television
time. Both would limit soft money and ban pooling individual
contributions ("bundling") and PAC contributions. But both bills face
an uphill battle and neither takes on the Supreme Court decision on
spending limits directly or provides public financing.
Campaign Finance and the Sierra Club
The campaign finance task force presented its recommended options to
the Club political committee in February. The proposed policy supports
shifting political power toward voters and volunteers and away from
large contributors and wealthy candidates. Among the ideas being
- Reduce campaign expenditures, with the goal of legislated limits.
- Reduce private campaign contributions, with the goal of democratically
- Prohibit the use of soft money in federal elections for specific
- Oppose laws that would decrease membership groups' ability to
influence elections and legislation.
- Increase Federal Election Commission power to audit campaigns.
- Establish TV and radio broadcast discounts plus reduced postage rates
for candidates that agree to limit spending.
The Political Committee will review the policy for possible adoption
at its May meeting.
One of the toughest issues for the Club to grapple with is the role of
PACs, especially since the Club has a highly visible one. Some members
would like to see them banned. "In the past, I might have been one of
those," says Santacroce. "But one of our goals is to increase
participation as much as possible, and membership organizations, like
political committees, can do that. I got involved as a result of our
PAC. I was going to monthly meetings of the New Haven Group. Someone
asked for volunteers to join in interviewing Representative Rosa
DeLauro for potential endorsement. I raised my hand."
Santacroce, who has served as political committee chair for the New
Haven Group and then the Connecticut Chapter, has seen first-hand how
the campaign for DeLauro brought new people into the Sierra Club.
Another important reason for maintaining the Club's PAC, says Deputy
Political Director Steven Krefting, is that it has created tremendous
visibility for the organization. The PAC allows the Club to publicly
support and oppose candidates for public office, he says, and helps
raise the profile of environmental issues during elections.
While the Club is still developing its position on actual campaign
reform legislation, it is becoming increasingly vocal about the
corrupting influence of big campaign contributors, and is carrying that
message into this election season.
Polls are showing that the role of polluter money is of increasing
concern to the American people. In March, the Wall Street Journal
reported on polls demonstrating strong public concern over campaign
contributions linked to environmental pollution.
"We have to get the polluters' big money out of politics," says Pope,
"and our voices back in. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on
lobbying and campaign contributions are subverting our government. We
need for politicians to be thinking about our children, not their next
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