Sierra Club

Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Ending the Money Chase

Campaign reform could return our democracy to its rightful owners

By Nancy Watzman

A law that actually forbids improved fuel efficiency, passed in the waning days of the 106th Congress, provides one of the most striking arguments yet for campaign-finance reform. In its 67 words, Section 320 of Public Law 106-346 prohibits the Department of Transportation from strengthening fuel-economy standards for light trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Inserted at the behest of the automobile industry (which has given $58.4 million to federal candidates and their parties over the past decade), the provision prevents the agency from cutting the U.S. contribution of global warming gases by 240 million tons annually. Though improving fuel economy is the biggest single action the United States could take to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, it has run into a wall of money.

Congress has approved Section 320 as part of the Transportation Department's budget every year since 1995. Only last year, after intense lobbying by the Sierra Club and increased pressure due to high gas prices, did Congress agree to ask the National Academy of Sciences to study the issue-but it continued to prohibit the Transportation Department from taking any concrete action.

Why is Congress so eager to please the auto industry, and so reluctant to heed environmentalists' concerns? It could have something to do with the fact that the auto industry out-contributes environmental groups by a margin of more than 8 to 1. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), environmental groups have given a relatively puny $7 million to candidates and parties since 1990, and that money is from all environmental groups working on a host of issues, of which fuel economy is just one.

Auto-industry money is a good predictor of congressional behavior. In October 1999, the 55 senators who voted against investigating stronger fuel-economy standards received more than twice as much money from the auto industry, on average, as the 40 senators who voted for it, according to an analysis by Public Campaign, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to reform campaign-finance laws.

The environmental lobby finds its arguments buried under industry cash in other areas, too. Since 1990, activists working to end commercial logging on national forests have been up against timber industry campaign contributions of nearly $25 million. Those toiling in the decades-old effort to prevent oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge must confront the effects of the $118 million the oil and gas industry gave politicians over the past decade. And environmentalists who opposed normalizing trade relations with China (because it could encourage U.S. manufacturers to move operations there in search of weak environmental standards) were drowned out by the $85 million spent during the 2000 elections by members of the Business Roundtable, a lobbying coalition of more than 200 major U.S. companies that is a vocal supporter of freer trade with China.

Current campaign-finance laws keep the great majority of politicians addicted to all this legal tender. In the 2000 elections, winning a seat in the House cost an average of $636,000, while a Senate seat cost an average of $5.6 million, according to an analysis by CRP. Overall, the tab for the 2000 elections was more than $3 billion, the highest in history.

Politicians won't overcome their addiction unless there is an alternative way to run successful bids for office. Probably the best-known national campaign-finance reform proposal, by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), would eliminate the soft-money loophole that allows donors to give unlimited dollars to political parties and "independent expenditure" campaigns. In theory, money given to parties is supposed to be used only for general activities, such as get-out-the-vote drives. In practice, parties increasingly use this booty to fund political advertisements that stop just short of directly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate.

In the last Congress, the House passed a modified soft-money ban while the McCain-Feingold bill fell victim to a Senate filibuster led by Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (McConnell, perhaps the Senate's most dedicated foe of campaign-finance reform, is also one of the GOP's most successful fundraisers.)

But congressional support for a ban is growing, and McCain has vowed to fight for his bill this year. He claims to have the 60 votes necessary to stop a Senate filibuster, ensuring that a debate and a vote will go on. The next hurdle will be fending off crippling amendments. As in years past, amendments could be introduced to increase the amount of "hard" money (direct political contributions already limited and regulated) that political donors can give from $1,000 per candidate per election to $3,000 or even higher.

Hard money is no less a tool of political influence. All of the campaign cash collected by the senators voting on Section 320 was hard money-contributed by political-action committees (PACs) and individuals. This money comes largely from a select group of wealthy Americans. Only one-tenth of one percent of the population of the United States made political contributions of $1,000 or more in the 1996 elections, and four-fifths of all political donors have annual family incomes exceeding $100,000 a year. Raising hard-money limits would effectively increase the clout of industry executives.

If Congress passes the McCain-Feingold legislation, the bill still needs the president's signature. In his campaign, Bush supported a watered-down version of a soft-money ban, one that would not restrict the flow of soft money from state party committees or wealthy individuals. If Bush vetoes the bill, then McCain will need to use all the public support he gained during his presidential run to muster two-thirds of the Senate and House to override the veto.

If McCain overcomes these hurdles, he will have achieved an enormous victory. But truly comprehensive campaign-finance reform must completely sever the links between special-interest contributions and politicians. Clean Money Campaign Reform, advocated by Public Campaign and supported by the Sierra Club, would replace the current system with one where candidates who volunteer to forgo private contributions and accept spending limits would receive limited public money to run their campaigns.

This kind of reform proved itself in Maine and Arizona in the 2000 elections. One-third of Maine's new legislature-17 of 35 state senators and 45 of 151 house members-ran successfully under Maine's clean elections law. To qualify, they had to raise a set number of $5 contributions, agree to spending limits, and refuse additional campaign contributions.

Meanwhile, Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and Representative John Tierney (D-Mass.) have proposed Clean Money legislation in Congress. The Tierney bill drew 47 cosponsors in the 106th Congress; the Wellstone proposal, just one. Not surprisingly, few legislators are willing to abandon their gravy train; comprehensive campaign reform will come from public pressure, or not at all.

Water Grab in the Mojave

By Marilyn Berlin Snell

In California's parched Mojave Desert, the mining of a new kind of liquid gold-water-is about to become big business. For two years, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has been in talks with Cadiz Incorporated, an agribusiness firm that owns part of the land above an aquifer in the Mojave. Cadiz stands to make $500 million on the deal, which includes storing excess water from the Colorado River in basins underlying its property as well as pumping from the aquifer, which contains 650 billion gallons of water. Negotiations were swimming right along, even though the U.S. Geological Survey found that Cadiz had considerably understated the environmental impact of the project. The Survey voiced concern that excessive pumping would cause "subsidence," meaning the partial or total collapse of the aquifer, so that water storage would be increasingly difficult.

Environmentalists were worried, too, since the aquifer lies under a third of Mojave National Preserve and pumping it would affect springs in the Trilobite, Clipper Mountain, Old Woman Mountains, and Cadiz Dunes wilderness areas. "Trilobite has the second-largest herd of bighorn sheep in the desert," says Elden Hughes, chair of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee. "The bighorns are dependent on those springs." So are a wide variety of desert plants, as well as the threatened desert tortoise. Hughes also notes that the aquifer runs beneath two dry lakes in the area, Cadiz and Bristol. Though water rarely surfaces there, it keeps the lake beds moist. "Think about what happened to Owens Lake when Los Angeles diverted its water," says Hughes, referring to the water controversy that inspired the classic film Chinatown. Today, Owens Lake dust is one of the nation's biggest sources of air pollution. Together, Cadiz and Bristol are seven times the size of Owens Lake.

Bad news about the project's potentially devastating impact on the Mojave's ecosystem did not derail negotiations-perhaps because of the political connections of Cadiz's president and CEO, Keith Brackpool. In 1998, Brackpool was appointed by California governor Gray Davis to co-chair the Agriculture and Water Transition Task Force-a group charged with developing water policy for the new governor's administration. Brackpool currently serves on the Governor's Commission on Building for the 21st Century and sits on the board of the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy.

Elden Hughes says two other aquifer projects under consideration could store unused Colorado River water and then pump it during drought years. "Between the two," says Hughes, "Southern California could meet its water needs without destroying the environment."

Bold Strokes

Mayor Sunbeam

By Marilyn Berlin Snell

Jerry Brown may have gotten a bad rap when he was pejoratively dubbed "Governor Moonbeam" as California's head of state in the 1970s, but "Mayor Sunbeam" might be just right for the bold-thinking politico today. Brown has turned Oakland, California-where he was elected mayor in 1999-into the world's largest green-powered city. Delivering on a promise made last November, when he announced that Oakland would purchase power from renewable energy sources such as wind, geothermal steam, and biomass, the city's all-renewable $4 million energy package now powers its city hall, administration buildings, and traffic and street lights. In an interview with Peter Asmus, author of the book Reaping the Wind, Brown says that "given the absence of bold ideas at the presidential and congressional level, cities and local governments must shoulder the burden of innovation."

For more information, write to Public Campaign, 1320 19th Street N.W., Suite M-1, Washington, DC 20036; call (202) 293-0222; e-mail; or go to the organization's Web site at


TONGASS MAKES THE LIST. President Clinton's 1999 call to protect 40 million roadless acres of national forest was a landmark-yet limited-proposal. One glaring omission was Alaska's 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest. After receiving more than one million public comments in support of wild places, the U.S. Forest Service added protection for the Tongass and a ban on commercial timber sales in all roadless areas to its final record of decision, signed into law in January. (See "Lay of the Land," March/April 2000, and "Home Front," November/December 2000.)

SO LONG, SNOWMOBILES. In November, the National Park Service announced that it would phase out snowmobile use in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, as well as on the highway that connects the two, over a four-year period. Each of the 100,000 snowmobiles ridden yearly in Yellowstone emits roughly 15 times more carbon monoxide and other pollutants than a car. Thanks to the ban, visitors will enjoy cleaner air and the peace and quiet they went to the park to find. (See "Lay of the Land," July/August 2000.)

ARMY CORPS FOUND GUILTY. When Donald C. Sweeney II accused his employer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, of manipulating study results to justify a $1.1 billion lock expansion on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, he was silenced and removed from the study. In December, his claims were validated by a Pentagon report, which also found that the Corps' industry ties created an agencywide bias toward approving river construction projects. (See "Lay of the Land," July/August 2000.)

YOSEMITE PLAN MIXED BAG. After years of debate, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced a final management plan for Yosemite Valley in November. The document calls for the removal of some roads, limits high-cost lodging, and eliminates a proposal to build a parking lot in an undeveloped area of the valley. However, it adds a number of new developments, including an environmentally damaging road-widening project, and fails to ban diesel buses from the park. (See "Lay of the Land," May/June 1998.)