Tightening the Beltway

Congress has a long track record of passing ineffective campaign reforms. Impatient, voters in many states are taking matters into their own hands.

Campaign finance reform bills before the U.S. House and Senate would limit congressional campaign and PAC spending, limit contributions from outside a candidate's state, and tighten rules on soft money and bundling. Too good to be true? If history proves accurate, these bills aren't likely to see floor votes unless they're substantially watered down. At the state level, however, voters across the country have passed reform initiatives by overwhelming margins. Here's a sampling:

Spending limits & public financing

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A controversial 1976 Supreme Court decision, Buckley vs. Valeo, ruled that limiting a candidate's spending or the use of personal wealth to finance a run for public office violates the First Amendment. Since then, reformers seeking to cap campaign spending have depended on voluntary limits agreed to by candidates in exchange for public financing and media discounts. Florida, Minnesota, and Rhode Island have already enacted such measures.

In California, Common Cause is sponsoring an initiative allowing candidates to receive larger individual gifts if they agree to a total spending limit. In Maine, a landmark initiative to provide full public financing for campaigns is likely to be on the November 1996 ballot. "It's a real movement that's beginning," says Ben Senturia of the Missouri Alliance for Campaign Reform. "People are just tired of money buying influence."

Eliminating & restricting PACs

Political action committees, first used by organized labor to circumvent laws that prohibit gifts to candidates from companies or unions, have become major fundraising tools for business, labor, and single-issue groups. There are nearly 4,000 registered PACs. In the 1994 election, they accounted for 40 percent of donations to winning candidates. Because most PAC money goes to incumbents, notes Gary Ruskin of Public Citizen's Congressional Accountability Project, eliminating PACs evens the playing field for challengers. But critics say PAC limits hurt small donors (such as contributors to environmental PACs) more than large corporate donors, who have access to other funding channels.

Contribution limits

In 1994, voters in Oregon, Missouri, and Montana passed legislation limiting contributions to small sums (varying from $100 to $500). Placing limits on donations, explains Doug Hess of ACORN (which sponsored the Missouri initiative), makes "people feel like the contribution they can make to a candidate is worth something. It doesn't get blown away by someone who can make $2,000 contributions." Both the Oregon and Missouri laws face legal opposition claiming they violate the right to free speech. Another reform initiative passed by Oregon voters (also under court challenge) is the first to eliminate any contributions from outside a candidate's district.

Disclosure

Some who oppose any limits on giving, instead propose that all political money be open to scrutiny. Currently, "soft money," donated to parties for activities not tied to specific campaigns, is outside strict reporting laws, as are many PACs. "As long as people know where the money's coming from, then it opens up the system," says the Cato Institute's Ed Crane.

"None of the above"

In Nevada, the only state where voters have a "none-of-the-above" ballot choice, NOTA has won four races in 20 years. But under current law, the candidate with the most votes after NOTA still wins. A better option, says Ruskin, would be binding: Whenever NOTA won, the losers would be tossed out and the campaign would have to start over with new candidates.

Resources

  • ACORN, 739 Eighth St., SE, Washington, DC 20003. (202) 547-2500.

  • Center for Responsive Politics, 1320 19th St., NW, Ste. 700, Washington, DC 20036. (202) 857-0044.

  • Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, 421 New Jersey Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20003. (202) 546-3221.

  • Maine Voters for Clean elections, P.O. Box 7692, Portland, ME 04112. (207) 773-3274.

  • Missouri Alliance for Campaign Reform, 4144 Linden Blvd., Room 504, St. Louis, MO 63108. (314) 731-5312.

  • Northeast Citizen Action Resource Center, 621 Farmington Ave., Hartford, CT 06105. (860) 231-2410.

  • Public Citizen's Congressional Accountability Project, P.O. Box 19446, Washington, DC 20036. (202) 296-2787.

  • U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 218 D St., SE, Washington, DC 20003. (202) 546-9707.