Thursday, November 13, 1997

Tony Miller, founder, Californians for Political Reform Foundation; Carol Wagner Vallianos, member, board of directors, The League of Women Voters; and Annelise Anderson, senior research fellow, Hoover Institution, tackle campaign finance , an issue the politicians would rather not touch.

Recorded on Thursday, November 13, 1997

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: campaign finance reform. In January 1997 President Clinton challenged Congress to send him a campaign finance reform bill by the 4th of July. The President was responding to public anger over money in American politics, including the way presidential candidates Bob Dole and Bill Clinton raised and spent money during their campaigns. Now, you might think that cleaning up money in politics is a simple enough matter - a few restrictions here, a few limitations there - and yet campaign finance reform can be anything but simple. During the last decade the number of speeches on the subject delivered in congress has numbered more than 3,000. And the number of bills on the subject that have been introduced? Well-- The number of pieces of actual legislation that have been enacted? Zero.

With us today, three guests. Tony Miller is the Founder of Californians for Political Reform, Carol Wagner Vallianos is a National Board Member of The League of Women Voters, and Annelise Anderson is a Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Now, Tony and Carol believe the ordinary American has too small a voice in our political system because that voice is squeezed out by thee louder voices of big money fat cats; they want tighter campaign restrictions. Annelise Anderson takes the opposite view; she wants to abolish limits on political money all together. More legislation, or virtually none.

ROBINSON Tony, what's wrong with the system by which we finance our campaigns as the system stands today?

MILLER Campaigns cost too much money. We need to provide a way candidates can communicate effectively without this horrendous spending that's required under the current system.

ROBINSON Too much money.

MILLER Too much money.

ROBINSON Annelise, what's wrong with this system, as it stands?

ANDERSON Well, I think we're over-regulating it. We're trying to control the most precious thing in free speech which is political free speech. The system makes it hard for candidates to raise money and favors incumbents over challengers.

ROBINSON Too much money. Too much regulation. Carol?

VALLIANOS It's soft money.

ROBINSON Soft money is what kind of money?

VALLIANOS Money spent by parties outside the federal regulations.

ROBINSON Soft money is contributions to the parties, and that is relatively unlimited?

VALLIANOS That's right.

ROBINSON And there's too much of it?

VALLIANOS There's too much of it. It's given by the wrong people, and there is very little disclosure -or late disclosure.

ROBINSON During the last election cycle 1996 we were electing senators, members of congress, a president, quite a large number of governors and members of state legislatures. The entire political system seems to have spent - a hard number to get nailed down, but it seems to have spent something like 2 billion dollars. That strikes you as too much. Is that right?


ROBINSON That strikes you as too much?

MILLER Absolutely.

ROBINSON And that strikes you as too much?

ANDERSON Minimal amount.

ROBINSON Minimal amount?

ANDERSON Absolute minimal amount. Two billion dollars on federal elections, which are not the governors in the states but the House--

ROBINSON If you include the Governors in the states, your number isn't higher?

ANDERSON Then it would probably be more. My understanding is that 2 billion is presidential and congress. Two billion dollars is 10 dollars over a period of 2 years, which is 10 dollars per member of the voting age population which is about 200 million people. And so that's 10 bucks over 2 years; 5 dollars a year per person of voting age in the United States.

ROBINSON Strikes you as too...

ANDERSON What is that, a couple of hamburgers?

ROBINSON Now let me put to you two who find that amount of money, 2 billion dollars for federal elections, outrageous. That's about the amount of money that the Coca-Cola Company spent on advertising in the same year. Isn't it fair to suggest that political speech, the formation of public policy in this country, is at least as important as advertising sugar water? Carol?

VALLIANOS Well, it's certainly more important than advertising Coca-Cola, for instance, but James Madison in the Federalist Papers said that if angels ran the government there would be no need for regulation, and if angels were governed by men, there would be no need for internal or external regulations. Well clearly, we don't have angels running the government and clearly there's a need for regulation. In this case, the ten dollars per person, it would be wonderful if it came from individuals, from each individual in the country. But unfortunately, it doesn't. It comes from big pockets and deep pockets.

MILLER Carol is absolutely right. If it were indeed coming in ten dollar increments or one hundred dollar increments or small contributions from a large number of people, that would be terrific. I'm not offended by the aggregate amount. What I'm offended by is in order to raise that aggregate amount currently, one must rely currently as a candidate on large contributions from a few people. And the whole system should be, candidates should receive a little money from a lot of people, not a lot of money from just a few as with the current system.

ROBINSON Because you're concerned that the few big givers are buying policy.

MILLER Absolutely, or at least has the appearance, the perception of ...

ROBINSON Two quite different things. Is it your, do you have evidence, do you know of, can, are there particularly egregious cases where a political contribution has resulted in a particular policy outcome?

MILLER Most of those are speculative because it is very difficult to establish a quid pro quo, but clearly the appearance of corruption is itself an interest that needs to be protected as the Supreme Court has repeatedly said.

ROBINSON And you'd agree, buy that?

VALLIANOS I agree. People lose faith in government by the appearance of impropriety; that becomes their reality.

ROBINSON Okay. Dick Morris, President Clinton's political advisor, here's a quotation: "The Lincoln bedroom and Air Force One may have been for sale but the President never was."

MILLER The President himself said, as I recollect, that only, the only thing that was received was a respectful hearing. Well that alone is alarming in my view because those that could afford to pay that kind of money got a respectful hearing. They were, they got their word, they got their voice heard by the President. Those that didn't have the money, didn't. And that concerns me a great deal.

ROBINSON Tony and Carol say we need more regulation. Haven't we tried that already?

ROBINSON Hard money contributions, that is contributions directly to candidates, are already limited. You push down here, something's going to pup up over here; that forces candidates to raise huge gobs of money by way of soft money. And that the regulation we already have is what's led to the obscenities to which you so object, and I presume it's your position that if you try to push it down here, somehow or other because you just have to have lots of money to campaign for office in this country, something is going to pop up over here.

MILLER We need to reduce the amount of money that's needed. That's why we need...


MILLER television time, free radio broadcast time for candidates, free mail or discounted mail. We do need to lower the cost of communicating so you don't have to raise these huge amounts of money.

ANDERSON You know, you don't lower the cost of communicating by forcing private enterprise, which our broadcast industry certainly is or the United States Postal Service funded by the taxpayer to give free stuff. Why don't we make Compaq computer give free computers? The cost is still there. You're just extracting it...

ROBINSON You're shifting the cost.

ANDERSON ...from the private sector instead which to me is terribly unfair and is a taking of property. I think that that's a...

ROBINSON Carol, go ahead.

VALLIANOS Well, broadcasters receive licenses free and they make millions of dollars from that. They really have a responsibility and an obligation to the democracy of this country to help the democratic process and to give free television time.

ROBINSON But Annelise makes the point, look, if you want to engage in a public debate in this country, it is going to be expensive and those costs will be there. She's saying your notion of making it free is illusory. The costs will be there. You're only engaging in shifting the costs from political campaigns to, in the case of free television advertising, corporations, or, in the case of free mailing, to the public itself. Would you deny that?

MILLER It's far better to shift those costs to those entities than allow big corporations and big unions and others to buy access and influence public policy with large campaign contributions. Absolutely. We're making a public policy judgment here...

ROBINSON And you...

MILLER ...and there's no doubt where I come out on that

ROBINSON You'd agree with that.

ROBINSON In the last election cycle, big labor and big business gave big bucks. Tens of millions in soft money contributions. Should powerful interests be allowed to throw money around like that?

ROBINSON The League of Women Voters says end soft money. Correct Carol?

VALLIANOS That's correct.

ROBINSON And you end that simply legislatively, meaning that Congress passes a law and from that point forward nobody's allowed to give unlimited amounts to parties? What happens instead? I'm allowed to write just a check for a thousand bucks or how does it work?

VALLIANOS Unions and corporations should be banned.

ROBINSON Unions and corporations don't get to give money to parties at all.

VALLIANOS That's right. But individuals certainly can give money to parties and should...

ROBINSON Unlimited amounts?

VALLIANOS ...and should give money to parties. Well, we can subject those to some kinds of limits but we certainly need disclosure. That's another issue.

ROBINSON Sound pretty good to you, Tony?

MILLER Absolutely.

ROBINSON Annelise?

ANDERSON Well, I'm in favor of greater disclosure. I thing that that is an excellent idea and I think that currently the federal election commission spends only 5 percent of its funds, or less, on public disclosure and I think that's an outrage. And I think they ought to inform the public rapidly. I think people ought to be required to file electronically; that that information ought to be available within 24 hours on the Internet, and that should be our main method of finding out what's happening.

ROBINSON Well pursue that more in a moment. What about this notion of ending soft money? First of all, let's take kicking unions and corporations out of the political process. Excuse me. Not out of the political process making it impossible for them to make campaign contributions...

ANDERSON I think that's very difficult to do.

ROBINSON Do you object in principle or merely as a matter of practicality?

ANDERSON I think as a matter of practicality.

ROBINSON The teamsters make political contributions to parties today. You say, "No more."

VALLIANOS Right. We can keep PACs, however.

ROBINSON ...but the unions... Now why do you say no more? Shouldn't the teamsters, they have a large membership of working people. Why shouldn't they have access to the political system? Why shouldn't they be able to make contributions to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?

VALLIANOS Well, the original idea behind the law here was there should be some party building and some voter registration enhancement going on. It's been corrupted over the years and both the labor unions and big corporations have made huge amounts of contributions in the past few campaigns.

ROBINSON Buying influence, in your view.

VALLIANOS Buying influence or certainly the, again, the appearance of buying influence.

ROBINSON Okay. Your second, main proposal of the League of Women Voters is to close the issue advocacy loophole. What is the loophole, in the first place?

VALLIANOS Issue advocacy is something we all support. We all want to be able to talk about issues that are important to us. It's a free speech issue and we certainly don't want to regulate that. But there is sham issue advocacy and that's really what we need to deal with and this is under the guise of an issue and yet it has a candidates likeness or a "Please call Senator So and So and tell him you don't support this issue," and that's really sham issue advocacy.

ROBINSON And you'd close the loophole.


ROBINSON No? You'd widen the loophole.

ANDERSON What kind of bureaucrats are going to be sitting around saying, "This ad from the Sierra Club or the Christian Coalition is not really an issue ad. It's really an ad to support the candidacy of Joe Blow somewhere.," okay. And, therefore, we won't allow it, or we'll fine them or something like that, and we've got a bunch of bureaucrats deciding who can talk about what. And I...

ROBINSON Well what about...

ANDERSON ...I think that's a terrible thing and I think that when you get to the point where you're dealing with issue advocacy and you want the government, some organization or bureaucrats in the government, some regulatory agency, or even the Congress to try to define what is and is not issue advocacy that you're in real trouble with freedom of speech.

ROBINSON Tony, every time you try to ratchet up the regulation on campaign law, you're giving greater power to bureaucrats.

MILLER Well, ultimately, the courts will make these decisions and they make those kinds of line-drawing decisions...

ROBINSON You want to give more power to the courts.

MILLER Courts ultimately decide these issues, similar issues today. They will under these reforms about which we speak. But, you know, this nonsense about that any restriction is a violation to the First Amendment, you know, just as there is no right to shout "Fire" in a crowded theater, there is no right to dominate the political process with big money. That's all we're trying to is get that domination of the process...

ROBINSON You're spouting nonsense.

ANDERSON The courts, the Supreme Court has ruled consistently since 1976 in a number of cases that limiting expenditures on political speech is not something that government has the power to do.

ROBINSON Current regulations are full of loopholes and there's no particular reason to expect new regulations to be much different. One of our guests proposes a different kind of reform.

ROBINSON Here is the Annelise Anderson rule of campaign finance, correct me if I'm wrong, anybody gets to give - any American - gets to give any amount of money to any candidate that he wants, and any candidate gets to spend any amount of money that he can raise and the sole proviso is that contributions have to made public within...

ANDERSON 24 hours.

ROBINSON ...24 hours. What would you do, just post them on the Internet?


ROBINSON No courts, no bureaucracy, public information, push the information to the electorate and let them decide. Now what's wrong with that? Carol?

VALLIANOS Well, we're back to the angels not running the government again or not being candidates.

ROBINSON But the check is the voters. The voters get to see who's giving what to whom.

VALLIANOS James Madison handled that as well. He said that the people ultimately really needed to control the government but because the people couldn't do it all of the time there needed to be some reasonable controls.

ROBINSON What about the New York Times? They get to read these postings on the Internet. What about journalists just walking in and raising hell?

VALLIANOS Absolutely. That's wonderful. But there still needs to be some kind of control. We can't leave the control in the hands of newspapers.


MILLER The fact of the matter is, with all that sunshine, most voters would still be in the dark. They wouldn't have a clue who was giving what to whom.

ROBINSON Ahhh. But isn't that a rather nasty thing to say about your fellow electorates?

MILLER No. It's the truth.

ROBINSON Democracy doesn't work because the American voters are just to dumb to figure it out?

MILLER No, I'm not saying that at all, but we need to be realistic about the information that voters are able to receive and digest, especially in a short amount of time. In California, for example, without any regulation whatsoever, Phillip Morris was able to contribute $125,000 to a candidate for the state legislature five days before the election in 1994, essentially bought that election. It was posted within 24 hours...


MILLER It was posted... Some newspapers covered it. It was a public record at offices throughout the state. It was posted timely. Most voters didn't have a clue until after the fact.

ROBINSON Annelise, they're not going to pay attention.

ANDERSON Well, I think that they are going to pay attention and I think that the press is going to handle this, and also given the Internet and the availability to all of us who have computers and can access the Federal Election Commission data will be able to go to the Federal Election Commission and can sort this data: who's giving what to whom, where is the money coming from for this candidate, how much is Phillip Morris giving to all different candidates or political parties around the country. We could analyze this and...

ROBINSON So you would want the information to be sortable so I could type in Phillip Morris and see how much they're giving and to whom.

ANDERSON Absolutely.

ROBINSON Or I could type in 'Pete Wilson' and see who's giving to him...

ANDERSON As a candidate or a political party, you would have to present it in a database form in which it would be easy to sort and analyze.

ROBINSON Figure it out.


ROBINSON Annelise says empower the people, not the government. Will it work?

ROBINSON Do you have a rigorous notion of the kind of campaign regime that would result if your proposals were enacted? That is to say, would the public, the political culture be such that with Internet postings, full disclosure and so forth candidates would in fact move toward the position that Tony and Carol would find more amenable. That is, they'd find themselves forced to accept only hundred dollar contributions, or is the sky the limit and people will be ponying up 10 million bucks?

ANDERSON I think that it's likely...

ROBINSON You think so?

ANDERSON ...that they would become reluctant to accept large amounts of money...

ROBINSON From tobacco companies.

ANDERSON ...from specific special interests, right, and to become the candidate of the tobacco interests or the candidate of the trial lawyers or whatever, and that would become quite obvious.

ROBINSON Is she dreaming?

VALLIANOS I think she's dreaming. I'm sorry, I think you're dreaming because right now it's all over the headlines and there is no limiting, no self limiting from these candidates. They're just going full blast and yet it's on the six o'clock news, there names are blasted all over the radio, and clearly there's no self limiting on this.

ROBINSON But Tony, what about this idea that Annelise is saying, 'Trust the people, because of technological developments we have ways of pushing information out to the electorate much more easily than ever before. Trust the people.' And you are saying, 'No, trust the bureaucrats; give them more money, and give them more power. Trust the courts and trust the bureaucrats.'

MILLER No. Clearly, trust the people as well but we have to be realistic about this. You know, there are of wage earners especially that don't have Internet access, that don't have time to come home after a long day's work and check the Internet and find out who's given what to whom that particular day. That's just simply not realistic to view it in those terms and the system that Dr. Anderson is proposing which is full disclosure but take all you want, that is so incumbent protective because those candidates that will receive the big contributions are the incumbents, not the challengers and it's axiomatic of...

ROBINSON How do you know that? Why is that likely to be the case?

MILLER Look at the record. Look at the record.

ROBINSON No, no, no, but she's, but that's under the current regime. She's proposing an entirely new regime.

MILLER And it's axiomatic in the political consulting business that with enough spending you can overcome any taint of a large contribution. That's just the simple reality.

ROBINSON With enough spending, you can overcome any taint. I mean, isn't what you're really trying to do is erect this fix and that fix and that fix because democracy just doesn't work very well?

MILLER Well, we want a democracy, not a plutocracy. And this is supposed to be a system of one person/one vote, not one dollar/one vote, and if you allow large contributors to dominate the political process and essentially dominate the electoral process, then we have a plutocracy, not a democracy.

ANDERSON Well, under our current regulations that limit how much can be given to individual candidates by individuals and how much can be given to political parties, we have had greater contributions to incumbents than we used to have. The system has, in fact, favored incumbents which we should be at least cynical enough to expect that legislation passed along these lines will favor incumbents...

ROBINSON Some say we were better off 30 years ago when a few wealthy individuals could bankroll entire presidential campaigns. Suppose the same rules applied today.

ROBINSON Last time around, last presidential election cycle, there was a period when it looked as though Colin Powell might enter the race. Now, it turns out there were a number of reasons why he didn't enter the race: his wife didn't want him to, he was hesitant for several reasons. But one of the reasons seems to have been that he wouldn't have had the time to raise the money under the current regime of election rules that he would have needed to run for president. There were stories in press that there were a handful of wealthy individuals in New York who were willing to solve the problem and I would put to you that if Colin Powell had gone to the American people and said, "Look. Time is short. I've decided to run for President. The ten people standing behind me have each contributed one million dollars to my campaign. Here they are. You know their names. You see their faces." The American people would have said in this circumstance, "Fine. I'm glad they did it." But you're proposing rules that would make it illegal and you're proposing rules that would make it even more difficult. Right?

MILLER Well, in the case of a Colin Powell, he wouldn't need ten millionaires standing up doing that because he did have the riveted attention of the media in this country. If we're going to change the system in order to allow someone to raise the amount of money they need, have tax credits so that the one hundred dollar contributor is a tax credit and amass money in that regard.

ROBINSON What about... You keep talking about the "fat cat donor" as somebody who's trying to buy influence. Isn't it possible that there are some public-spirited rich people in the country and that if you get ten jillionaires behind Colin Powell that would be a good thing? That is to say, in some circumstances big dough is bad for politics and in some circumstances it makes remarkable things possible, such as the candidacies of Edwin Muske and George McGovern in 1972, right? Sometimes good, sometimes bad. You have to let the people decide according to the circumstances.

VALLIANOS No, actually I don't agree with that at all. In fact, I think this is incremental reform that I am talking about, but the League of Women Voters has a twofold strategy and once we get some incremental reform to handle the egregious things, then we think that it needs to be grass roots efforts, state by state, like in Maine where the voters by referendum passed the Clean Money.

ROBINSON So, your notion is tighten it up a little bit now then over the longer term tighten it up even more.

VALLIANOS Public financing.


VALLIANOS Clean money, clean elections... where you don't have that. The candidates give up a little bit in order to get...

ROBINSON So the taxpayers are now financing elections quite directly. It comes from government funds.

MILLER It's better than corporations and unions.

VALLIANOS Right. Exactly.

ROBINSON Last question for the table. Ten years from now will campaign laws be tighter? By tighter I mean, will they move in the direction that Carol and Tony would like to see them move in? Or looser, by which I mean, will they move in the direction that Annelise would like to see them move in? Or will we just muddle along and be in about the same place we are now? Tighter? Looser? The same? I'm not saying what you want. I'm asking now for your prediction as a political pro. Carol?

VALLIANOS Democracy is a work in progress so it will be constantly changing and perhaps tightening, then a little looser, and then probably in ten years tighter.

ROBINSON Tighter. You're an optimist, from your point of view. Tony?

MILLER Tighter because the American people will demand it.

ROBINSON Okay. Annelise?

ANDERSON Looser because democracy is a work in process and I am an optimist.

ROBINSON Okay. You don't have any consciousness that your position is just so outlandish, so way off on the fringe of the current debate.

ANDERSON No, because, because the opposite position is a severe disadvantage to challengers and it gives a great deal more power to the media, for example, and to special interest groups rather than to candidates themselves.


ANDERSON And this is sufficiently disadvantageous and unattractive that I think that it will not happen.

ROBINSON Annelise, Tony, Carol. Thank you very much.

ROBINSON Tony Miller and Carol Wagner Vallianos believe there is too much money in American politics and too few restrictions -they'd like to see more. Annelise Anderson takes the opposite view: Too much restriction, too little money. So what is it to be? Bills or bills? I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.