Sierra Club: The Planet-- 1996
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The Planet
Pollution and Politics: Cleaning Up the Money Trail

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 Wildlife Refuge.

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 debated are:

  • Reduce campaign expenditures, with the goal of legislated limits.
  • Reduce private campaign contributions, with the goal of democratically financed campaigns.
  • Prohibit the use of soft money in federal elections for specific candidates.
  • 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 fundraiser."

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