Campaign Finance: A Reform to End All Reforms

Thursday, April 30, 1998

Current proposals to reform the campaign finance system are based on the idea that there's too much money involved in politics and that the people and organizations who give that money have too much influence. We would be better off, the argument goes, to limit contributions and spending even more than we now do. Most of the major campaign finance reform legislation introduced in Congress attempts to do so, ostensibly to reduce the influence of money in politics and put candidates, both challengers and incumbents, on a level playing field. But let's spend a moment examining that basic idea, that there's too much money in politics.

Do We Spend Too Much?

The purpose of political campaigns is to communicate with potential voters about the candidates--their policy views, their records, their character, their vision for the future. That is the essence of free speech. In a country the size of the United States, that communication is expensive.

During the 1996 election, the official estimate of the voting-age population in the United States was 196.5 million people. This far-flung population resides in 211 major broadcast television markets; 65 percent of households receive cable television. These people read more than one hundred daily newspapers with circulations of more than 100,000, three major news magazines, and a variety of journals of fact and opinion. They listen to radio in 261 metropolitan markets. They receive millions of pieces of direct mail a year and look at thousands of billboards. They visit an untold number of web sites on the Internet. In a presidential election year, tens of millions of them watch televised debates among the candidates.

Despite this voracious consumption of information, advertising, and opinion, it is not an easy population to reach, given the staggering diversity of the media. Gone are the days of the 1950s, when the average household received three television channels; today the average is forty-five. The available radio spectrum has increased enormously, and cable television and the Internet have come into being.

Those 196.5 million potential voters, however, must rely on the following three basic sources of information in a campaign:

  1. The "free" media. Most media coverage is free to the candidates and provides news and opinion on the candidates and the issues. The candidates speak; reporters and editors decide how to cover it. They even decide what questions to ask during presidential debates.
  2. The independent spenders. This category includes unions and associations of unions such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the National Education Association; corporations and trade associations; and special interest groups such as Common Cause, the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club, and the Christian Coalition. They communicate with the public in a variety of ways--through the news coverage they get, through paid advertising, through direct mail, through talk shows. To the extent that they spend independently rather than give to candidates, political action committees and political parties also fall in this category.
  3. The candidate's own communications. The most important communication with the voters is paid advertising--television and radio spots, direct mail, brochures passed out at local and national campaign headquarters, billboards, posters, and buttons.
During the 1996 presidential campaign, each major candidate was allowed to spend only about 31.5 cents per voter—less than the price of a first-class postage stamp.

Of the three, only a candidate's own communications are under his or her direct control, and they are an important information source. Not that other information isn't there, in the newspapers and magazines and on the talk shows, but often the news stories, especially on television, are about the horse race--whether it was or was not a good week for this or that candidate. The time television reporting gives to the candidate as a sound bite has gotten briefer; the reporter's commentary has gotten longer. The candidate gets about eight seconds, the reporter, fifty-two. Much of what potential voters read and hear is selected and filtered by strangers.

A Model Budget for a National Campaign

In the presidential race the time from the nomination to the election is relatively brief. In the approximately sixty-four days between Labor Day and election day, there are about 200 million people to reach. That takes money. In addition to the campaign expenses for renting space, furniture and equipment, travel, telephone and fax, a reasonable, even modest, communications program--not limited by government regulations--could easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Such a communications program in a presidential campaign might try to do the following:

Reach as much of the adult population as possible with television advertising--broadcast, local broadcast, and cable--say, ten times each with thirty-second ads. There's ample proof that repetition is important in communicating a message.

Present three or four thirty-minute televised "Fireside Chats" with the candidate, possibly on cable television.

Reach commuters and others by radio in all major markets, with the goal of communicating with 80 percent of listeners at least five times each.

Take one or two full-page ads in all newspapers with more than 100,000 circulation.

Send out at least two pieces of direct mail (brochures) to each potential voter.

Advertise on billboards and produce pins, buttons, bumper stickers, and the like.

Send all households a videotape about the candidate.

The television advertising and direct mail would cost about $100 million each; we will allow another $400 million for radio, newspapers, billboards, and bumper stickers; possible fireside chats; and all personnel, office, equipment, phone, fax, and travel expenses. That's at least $600 million--or about $3 for each person in the country of voting age. This does not seem to be an unreasonable sum, and yet during the 1996 presidential election the amount of money each major presidential candidate was allowed to spend for everything except required accounting and legal expenses was $62 million--or 31.5 cents per person, less than the price of a first-class postage stamp, about 10 percent of what a reasonably effective campaign might cost.

If the amount a candidate can spend directly is limited, the relative influence of the free media, the special interest groups, and the national parties themselves increases. It is only the expenditures of the candidate's own campaign organization that are under the direct control of the candidate. With the exception of the presidential debates, other communications are filtered through third parties--through the selective judgment of reporters and editors on a sound bite to use on television or a quote from a speech to print; through independent expenditures; through the focus of a special interest group, whether its concerns are gun control, saving the northern spotted owl, or abortion policy. Even in debates where candidates obviously speak for themselves, the topic and framing of the questions are determined by others.

Limiting expenditures limits the ability of candidates to communicate with the electorate. When this capability is limited, the free media, special interest groups, and presidential debates become more important.

The Current Situation

Our system of financing political campaigns is indeed in need of reform. Candidates spend too much time raising money from too many people. Candidates with their own fortunes have an advantage over those who do not, and wealthy individuals may run for office when they would prefer to support others. Expenditure and contribution limitations push political money underground, into evermore indirect channels where it is hard to follow. The links between political money and the decisions of elected officials become more obscure, and thus those holding office are less obviously accountable. Disclosure requirements do not result in timely, useful data that can be analyzed by the press or anyone else concerned.

What We Need to Do

Abolish Campaign Spending Limits We need to get rid of expenditure limitations to enable candidates to spend what they need to spend--if they can raise the money--to communicate effectively with potential voters. We need to hear more directly from them and perhaps not so much from special interest groups supporting them.

The numbers we hear about campaign spending seem large. But the entire amount spent in the 1995–96 elections, including the primaries, by all federal candidates--presidential, House, and Senate--and by national political committees, including so-called soft money, was about $2 billion, or $10 per person of voting age over a two-year period. Compare that with whatever you like--a couple of hamburgers or movie tickets or a paperback book and a magazine or two.

Abolish Campaign Contribution Limits We need to get rid of limitations on contributions, so that candidates can raise more money with less time and effort. This will reduce the perpetual fund-raising candidates complain about. It will give challengers the possibility of raising some seed money to make an effective foray against incumbents and reduce the financial advantage of incumbents over challengers. It will give candidates of modest means a fairer shot against personally wealthy rivals. It will help channel the funds of the wealthy to candidates where potential influence will be obvious, rather than to less-accountable special interest groups.

We need to get rid of expenditure limitations to enable candidates to spend what they need to spend.

Establish Real-Time Campaign Finance Reporting Requirements We need to strengthen reporting requirements to produce timely and useful information. With modern computers and the Internet, there's no reason campaign contributions and expenditures shouldn't be reported daily and posted on the Internet in a standard format that can be easily accessed and analyzed by the press and the public. Full and timely disclosure is the best way to deal with the potentially corrupting effect of political money--and with today's Internet technology, that information should be available to everyone without charge.

There's a bill in Congress that would do these three things--the Citizen Legislature and Political Freedom Act, H.R. 965, introduced by Representative John Doolittle (R.-Calif.) and supported most articulately by Senator Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.). It would reverse the attempt to regulate campaign contributions and expenditures--and thus political speech--that has led to the current mess and threatens to involve us in evermore complex limitations on what we can say, when we can say it, and how much we can spend saying it.

That bill should be the top priority of the 105th Congress.