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The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

by Marty Jezer 07-01-2004
Why incremental reform is not the solution

Advocates of campaign finance reform approach the issue from two different strategic perspectives: Abolitionism and incrementalism. Abolitionists espouse comprehensive reform - full public financing that removes all private money from the electoral process. They see money in politics as a raging river - dam it at one point and it will create a new riverbed elsewhere. Under the name of the Clean Money, Clean Elections (CMCE) reform, public financing is successful law to varying degrees in four states.

A federal "clean elections" bill has been introduced that, like the state bills, gives public financing to qualified candidates who agree not to take campaign contributions from private sources (except for a limited number of small "qualifying" contributions that serve to establish eligibility for the full public stipend). Right now, the federal bill lacks the grassroots support to make it a pressing issue.

The difficulty of passing a comprehensive public financing bill is why many reformers choose the incremental approach. On the assumption that it is better to pass a limited bill than no bill at all, they hope to reform the system in stages. The 2002 McCain-Feingold bill (officially known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act or BCRA), is their primary accomplishment. It is meant to prohibit "soft money," the hundreds of millions of dollars that corporations, labor unions, and wealthy individuals launder through unregulated state parties for use in federal elections.

Many abolitionists predicted that McCain-Feingold would prove to be one big loophole that would spawn new conduits for soft money and dilute efforts to build popular support for comprehensive public financing.