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How to Minimize Money’s Role in Politics

This article is excerpted from the author’s most recent book, "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy" (PoliPoint Press).
Summer 2006 |
Given the legal constraints, public financing is the most promising campaign finance reform because it helps level the playing field by providing all candidates with sufficient resources to communicate with voters, and it provides incentives for candidates to voluntarily accept spending limits.
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One of the most discussed political reforms over the last 30 years has been campaign finance reform. That reform effort blames much of what ails our representative democracy on the pernicious effect of private money in politics. In the 1990s, tales of the Keating Five, Lincoln Bedroom, and Buddhist temples became the stuff of political legend. More recently, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was accused of campaign and money laundering violations and lobbyist Jack Abramoff pled guilty to influence peddling and bribery of various Congressional members. The 2004 presidential candidates broke new records by spending $1.7 billion, nearly twice the amount spent in 2000. Such stories have created a widespread perception of cronyism, corruption, and a “pay to play” political system swamped with money.

Beneath this perception is an irrefutable fact: It now takes a lot of money to run for office. Besides the soaring costs of a presidential campaign, a single congressional district today has 650,000 residents, and a state senate district in California has 850,000 residents. Without access to gobs of money for TV and radio ads, direct mail, and other ways of broadcasting to the public, under-funded and non-media-sanctioned candidates have little means to connect with voters. In many races sometimes only one candidate per race has access to those kinds of resources. The 2004 presidential election was a contest between, in the words of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, “two silver spooners.” As a result, voters do not hear a range of viewpoints. Vigorous debate vanishes among the expensive, poll-driven, sound bite campaigns, and voters and democracy are the losers.

This loss of political debate and new ideas is one of the most insidious downsides to our privately financed campaigns. That’s why I was one of the organizers (along with Common Cause and Democracy Matters) of successful efforts to pass legislation in both San Francisco and Oakland for public financing of local races. I believe strongly in public financing of campaigns as one of the essential reforms needed to repair our broken democracy. This is particularly true since the U.S. Supreme Court in the mid-1970s equated money with free speech by ruling that candidate spending caps and most restrictions of campaign funding (other than limits on the amount of individual donations to candidates) are unconstitutional. It was one of the worst decisions the High Court ever rendered, and it has greatly limited reform possibilities. Given the legal constraints, public financing is the most promising campaign finance reform because it helps level the playing field by providing all candidates with sufficient resources to communicate with voters, and it provides incentives for candidates to voluntarily accept spending limits.

Yet it often bothers me that some of my reform colleagues have oversold the significance of campaign finance reform. We frequently hear that campaign finance reform -- whether public financing, donation limits, free air time, or spending caps -- will lead to greater competition in our elections, wash candidates “clean” from the effects of money, and change election outcomes as well as legislative policy. One organization even proclaimed, “Getting private money out of public elections is the unfinished business of the voting rights movement,” implying that doing so will elect significantly more minority representatives -- a claim that is demonstrably false.

After more than 30 years of campaign finance reform, including the use of public financing of campaigns in several states, the presidential election, and a host of municipal elections, I see little evidence that these claims are accurate. I wish that campaign finance reform was the magic bullet some say it is, “the reform that makes all other reforms possible,” as some have called it. But the truth is, it’s not. Where reforms have been passed, particularly public financing of campaigns, there is solid evidence of more contested races and candidates representing more points of view. That in turn has increased political debate and engagement of voters, a great accomplishment. But there is little evidence that more contested races has led to more competitive races, an important distinction.

What’s needed now, I believe, is a new and more effective approach to campaign finance reform. In particular, we need to see why campaign finance reform, particularly public financing of elections and free media access, is a necessary but insufficient step toward repairing our broken democracy.

The Hype of Reformers

Each election cycle -- you can set your calendar by it -- leading campaign finance reform organizations issue a post election press release announcing something like “Money Wins Big, Top Spenders Capture 9 Out Of 10 Races.” One headline from a report blared “Money Largely Determines Election Outcomes.”These announcements declare that getting private money out of campaigns, or at least reducing spending inequities between candidates, will significantly affect American politics.

But as has been demonstrated by numerous studies such as FairVote’s biannual "Dubious Democracy” reports, campaign spending inequities did not give rise to the many lopsided one-party districts in the United States today. Those are produced by partisan residential patterns in red and blue America combined with district-based, winner-take-all elections, which in some states becomes exaggerated by incumbent protection plans drawn during the redistricting process. Sure, the winners have more money than challengers, but what’s the cause and what’s the effect? The money goes to candidates who donors know will win, because the partisan demographics of the district guarantee that result. By betting on the sure horse in each race, donors hope they’re buying access and influence -- not elections. In other words, for most elections, money follows electoral success, not vice versa. But by reversing cause and effect, these headlines confuse our understanding of how our democracy works and how to repair it. And that confusion exaggerates our expectations of how much campaign finance reform really can accomplish, leading to disappointment among reformers, the public, and funders of reform.

That realization was never clearer than in May 2005, when I addressed the annual convention of the Arizona League of Women Voters. Spearheaded by the League in 1998 and 2000, Arizona had enacted two of the most talked-about reforms: full public financing of campaigns (“clean money”) for state elections, and a nonpartisan independent redistricting commission. Arizona’s reform success generated excitement and hope across the nation. Yet I found the League of Women Voters, as well as other Arizona reformers, downright glum about their efforts. Apparently the recent electoral results hadn’t matched their expectations or their campaign rhetoric. In fact, the Grand Canyon State had seen some of the least competitive races in the nation in 2004. None of the 30 state senate seats was competitive, and more than half of the seats were uncontested by one of the two major parties. In the state house, which uses two-seat districts, half the races were uncontested by a major party and only 5 out of 60 races were competitive. In the end, 97 percent of incumbents won reelection, whether their campaigns were publicly financed or privately financed (and despite having an independent redistricting commission removing the worst excesses of incumbent gerrymandering).

Those are not the results one would hope for in a state that has been at the forefront of political reform. To be sure, some positives have occurred in Arizona as well -- for example, a decent increase in the number of candidates running in the primaries and for statewide executive offices, which fostered more political debate. And 10 of the 11 winners for statewide office were publicly financed candidates, including current governor Janet Napolitano. But, on the other hand, the number of women candidates in the primaries declined steadily from 71 in 2000 to 66 in 2002 to 59 in 2004, only 29 percent of primary candidates; and the number of minority candidates, after increasing significantly from 13 in 2000 to 37 in 2002, decreased to 34 in 2004, only 17 percent of all primary candidates (in a state that is 36 percent minority). And there has been no noticeable impact on legislative policy.

In Maine, another state with full public financing of campaigns, results have been somewhat better but still not earth shattering. On the positive side, the number of contested primaries rose to 39 in 2004, up from 25 in 2000, fostering more political debate (though that’s out of 186 races, still a small fraction overall). And in the November election only two races were uncontested by a major party in the state senate, and seven in the house. At least three independent legislators’ victories can be attributed partly to public financing allowing them to knock off candidates of both major parties. But Maine also remains dogged by mostly noncompetitive elections: in 2004 the average victory margin for 35 state senate races and 151 state house races was a landslide of 20 points. Only four races in the senate were highly competitive (won by less than five points), while 31 in the house were, the latter a decent showing. But twice as many house races, 62 overall, were won by huge landslide margins. And the number of women in the Maine Legislature has dropped to its lowest level in 20 years. One report examining public financing in Maine, Arizona, and elsewhere concluded, "There is little evidence that public funding has increased representation of women... or the number of women who run for office."

So after all their hard work, it was not surprising that Arizona reformers expressed disappointment. Ever an optimist, I told the reformers to take heart: it’s not that public financing and independent redistricting commissions aren’t good reforms, it’s just that they are more limited in their impact than most people realize. In Arizona, as in many states, public financing (and redistricting commissions) are rendered less than potent by the red and blue partisan residential patterns combined with the winner-take-all electoral system. Over the past 15 years, liberals and Democrats have become more numerous in the southern part of the state (around Tucson), while conservatives and Republicans dominate the rest of the state. The only way to make winner-take-all districts more competitive in Arizona would be to draw narrow bands that extend vertically from south to north, like the teeth of a fork. But such districts not only would look ridiculous, they also would break up communities of interest, such as geographic regions and racial minorities, showing the trade-off of winner-take-all districts -- you can have competitive elections or representative results, but it’s pretty difficult to have both. Unfortunately, there’s little that publicly financed elections, or even redistricting commissions, can do to counter these realities. Demography in Arizona -- like in so many other states -- has become destiny.

Public financing’s greatest successes have been realized in city elections, such as New York City and Los Angeles, which use public financing for mayor, city council, and other races. There, we see strong evidence that the availability of public funds has helped level the playing field and produced more minority and women candidates, especially for leading offices such as mayor and city council. Los Angeles’s current Latino mayor was a publicly funded candidate, and as of 2002, approximately half the members of the New York City Council were minorities and a quarter were women, most of whom received public financing (on the other hand, most of these cities’ council races were completely noncompetitive). But these cities are heavily Democratic, so elections are fought along different battle lines than the red and blue fiefdoms of state and federal politics.

In short, Arizona and other states find themselves in situations where the problem is not simply whether one candidate greatly outspends the other. The problem also is balkanized partisan residential patterns combined with electing legislators via a checkerboard electoral map of individual districts. Campaign finance reform is valuable but insufficient. I told the Arizona reformers that it was time to take the next step, which is to scrap their winner-take-all system and start using proportional representation along with public financing of campaigns -- a powerful combination that would greatly increase competition and substantially improve representative government in Arizona.

The Puzzle of Quid Pro Quo

Rather than the level of political competition, some campaign finance reformers focus on the quid pro quo between politicians and donors -- the granting of legislative favors in return for big donations from lobbyists and influence peddlers like Jack Abramoff and his ilk. There is a belief that public financing of campaigns, even in the face of an avalanche of noncompetitive safe seats, will make the politicians act differently because they won’t need to rely on special interests to raise money and so this change in association will also affect their votes. I believe there is much truth to this view, but a key question is: how much? To what degree does who politicians raise money from affect overall policy, especially in major policy areas?

When you look at the amount of political donations from corporations and various industries, while obviously it is a lot of money by the standard of the average voter, it is really a small amount for these corporations. For instance, a leading campaign finance reform newsletter reported that the Senators who voted against an amendment to bankruptcy legislation received $34,520 more on average from the banking and credit industry than the senators who voted in favor of the amendment, the implication being that the donations affected their votes. But that was over a six-year period, which works out to less than $6000 per Senator per year. Apparently a Senator can be bought pretty cheaply. It also implies that for a mere $6000 per year the supporters of the amendment could buy back those Senator’s votes, which is clearly incorrect.

Another issue of the newsletter provocatively juxtaposed the fact that Congress had barred the Transportation Department from requiring higher fuel efficiency for SUVs and light trucks to the auto industry’s contributions to federal campaigns of $4.6 million over a four year period. That works out to little more than $1 million per year, a pittance for the auto industry. If these corporations and industries really wanted to influence the legislative process or try to buy elections, they have the deep pockets to spend a lot more money. Billions more.

Rather the corruptive influence of quid pro quo, often a better explanation of the relationship between politicians and their donors is a bit more mundane: they are on the same team. A certain number of these politicians take donations from certain special interests and introduce their bills because they believe in the bills and the issue. And the donors are not necessarily trying to "buy" a legislator as much as give money to the side that will best protect their interests.

An excellent example of this a few years back was the heated battle over gun control. Recall that this legislative episode came after a rash of high school shootings, including the tragedy at Columbine. The legislators that led the fight against gun control, like Republican Tom DeLay and Democrat John Dingell, did not do so because they had been bought by the NRA. No, it’s because they believed in the correctness of their position. They were, in effect, on the anti-gun control team, just like the NRA is on the team. One is the representative in the legislature who introduces the bill, the other provides the financial backing, lobbyists and activists to push or kill a certain bill. There is not necessarily a quid pro quo there. After all, reformers in favor of gun control, like the national organization Handgun Control, do the same thing, they find supportive and collegial legislators to introduce their bills, and in return they support them with their money, endorsements and activists. But supporters of gun control would hardly call these legislators “bought,” would they?

Nevertheless, during the gun control debate, campaign finance reformers noted that the members of Congress who voted the NRA’s way received 31 times more money from gun rights groups than those who voted in favor of background checks. This worked out to about $11,195 per member, which is not a lot of money for a House race today. It turned out there was a simpler and better explanation for explaining the patterns of NRA donations: they give, firstly, to House members who are on the anti-gun control team, to support their team members’ reelection. And the House members are on the team because they believe in the issue. Secondly, the NRA donates to candidates representing swing districts, who perhaps have been intimidated into supporting the NRA position because if you are the legislator in a swing, rural district the gun control issue can cost you a crucial number of votes. An examination of the Democrats who voted against gun control shows that nearly all of them were from rural swing districts where being on the wrong side of the gun-control issue can cost you your seat. It’s the votes against them that swayed their support, not campaign contributions.

Following the vote in May 2000 to permanently open commercial ties with China, a press advisory from a public watch dog group issued a news advisory that read, in part:

"But did the money have an impact on today’s vote? An analysis of campaign contributions made by members of the Business Roundtable shows that House members voting to approve the China bill have received an average of $44,000 in PAC and individual donations this cycle. Lawmakers voting "no" took in an average of $25,000.

Note that lawmakers voting both "yes" and "no" had received sizable donations from the Business Roundtable members. The watchdog group would have us believe that a mere $19,000 difference in donations between House members who voted yes and those who voted no allegedly was the smoking gun that pointed to the ‘yes’ votes as having been influenced by donations from the Business Roundtable. This hardly seems plausible.

One can point to numerous examples like these where reformers found a smoking gun where the evidence did not support that conclusion, using alarmist statistics that provided more heat than light. In short, the fact that a lot of candidates receive chunks of money from the same corporations, PACs, lobbyists and special interests, while definitely a relationship that needs to be tracked and monitored, is not by itself proof that they have been "bought.". Nor can you assume that a political party has been bought because it receives large soft money donations from certain corporations, industries or PACs, or the endorsement of voters and activists that keep supporting and voting for them. Sometimes they are just on the same team, and would be on the same team even if there were not large chunks of money involved. That’s because they have the same beliefs and legislative priorities that flow from these beliefs.

Certainly there are notorious examples of riders attached to bills specifically because some quid pro quo occurred between a donor and a powerful representative, committee chair or party leader who was influential enough to add the rider to the bill. But such riders are a small percentage of overall policy and legislation. Usually such a blatant quid pro quo is an exchange between the legislator and an individual donor (who is often a constituent from the legislator’s home district or state) that affects the donor’s personal business situation, not major areas of policy. While reprehensible and unethical, such behavior is hardly the smoking gun we are looking for here.

The Pyramid of Money

To understand the role that private money plays in our elections, it’s important to understand what I call the “pyramid of money.” Party leaders such as Republican Tom DeLay and Democrat Nancy Pelosi, as well as most incumbents from both parties, don’t need to spend a dime on their reelections because they represent one-party fiefdoms due to the red and blue partisan residential patterns and winner-take-all elections (DeLay’s recent ethical troubles may make his 2006 race more competitive, but in normal circumstances he wins by insurmountable landslides). Nevertheless, the Big Money Kings and Queens raise huge amounts of money for their own reelections. Why? Because they use the money for party-building activities and to finance colleagues in the handful of hotly contested races, buying themselves influence among their peers and important party leadership positions. Think of it as a pyramid structure with each party’s Kings and Queens sitting at the top, the fat cats directing the flow of money to the predictably tight races, hoping to win a majority of seats for their team. The rest of the safe-seat incumbents, along with the lobbyists, lawyers, allied PACs and donors, fill out the lower levels of the Pyramid, funneling money into the Pyramid’s labyrinth where it is directed by party leaders who are skilled in the art of deception. It’s a well-oiled team operation, with lots of give and take between the different levels of the team.

The Pyramid symbolizes the shape and flow of private money in our political system, and it is fueled by winner-take-all’s one-party fiefdoms which allow so many safe-seat incumbents to raise huge amounts of money that’s not needed for their own reelections, so it can be funneled to other partisan activities. When you want to understand the crucial dynamic of money in our politics, don’t think of candidates receiving briefcases of money from shadowy lobbyists, think of the Pyramid.

Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe the modern-day dance between lobbyists and partisan leaders as one where “the stereotyped relationship between the lobbyists and the lobbied” has been turned on its head. Indeed, comments by former House majority leader Tom DeLay reveal the extent to which the lobbyists and special interests today follow the lead of political leaders, not vice versa. Said DeLay, “No one came to me and said, ‘Please repeal the Clean Air Act.’ We say to the lobbyists, ‘Help us.’ We know what we want to do and we find the people to help us do that.”

So the Pyramid is the problem, much more than the quid pro quo; the quid pro quo is repugnant but only a symptom of the bigger picture. Jack Abramoff and his ilk are hardly the reason Tom DeLay and the GOP pursue ultra-conservative policies. Abramoff’s illegal activities did not affect major policy areas. Instead they involved receiving favors from legislators -- including from DeLay -- for himself and his business clients in exchange for large donations and perks for legislators. DeLay got what he wanted -- large donations to grease his political machine -- and Abramoff got what he wanted -- personal favors for his businesses and clients, each playing their respective roles in the pyramid of money. In this fashion, major policy directions are driven not by quid pro quo but by the dynamics of the Pyramid, with its one-party fiefdoms and Kings and Queens sitting atop the pile, directing the show.

Certainly it is true that when quid pro quo becomes pervasive, its cumulative effects are corrosive to our democracy because of the public perception of corruption as well as actual corruption of certain policies and appropriations. But it is also true that, even with strong campaign finance reform, breaking up the Pyramid will be very difficult to do as long as we are using a winner-take-all system where most legislative seats are lopsided one-party districts, and invincible incumbents with no worries about reelection can funnel their campaign funds to party leaders sitting atop the Pyramid’s labyrinth.

The Promise of Public Financing

Despite the noxious influences of the Pyramid, public financing of campaigns still can accomplish a lot -- though, again, not necessarily for the reasons that many advocates say. Much of the rhetoric from its advocates is aimed at “cleaning up politics,” with the implication being that politicians who take private money are “dirty.” This ignores the fact that it takes a fair amount of money to communicate with millions of voters; presidential elections obviously are hugely expensive, but so are statewide and congressional races and even many state legislative races. If candidates can’t raise enough money to communicate with voters, well-financed, shadowy independent expenditure committees (which are not similarly restricted) will end up becoming the dominant source of information for voters. That’s a disturbing thought.

Also the “cleaning up politics” rhetoric undermines our reformer efforts because by reinforcing the notion that politicians and money are dirty, crooked, and sleazy, reformers make large segments of the public repulsed at the idea of funding politicians with their taxes and providing “welfare” for the sleazy politicians. It also contributes to a generally negative feeling of the public towards government itself, which feeds into a conservative agenda that for three decades has been bashing government and making the public feel like “government is the problem.” If Americans don’t value government, then it’s not likely they will value democracy, nor will they value reform of that democracy. So the notion of “cleaning up” our politics not only is over-hyped, ultimately it is counterproductive and backlashes against our own campaign finance reform efforts.

Here’s a more useful -- and more accurate -- rationale. Public financing allows candidates to chip away at the monolith of the Pyramid by allowing lesser-funded candidates to challenge better-funded candidates and party machines, and to raise issues that foment real campaign debate. It will not unseat the many one-party fiefdoms or destroy the Pyramid -- but it can rattle it. Only rarely will it help produce upsets and elect a few more Jesse Venturas (Minnesota’s partial public financing and Ventura’s inclusion in televised debates certainly were factors in his gubernatorial victory). But given the dynamics of winner-take-all elections combined with partisan residential patterns that create so many safe seats, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for upsets to occur. The most effective and accurate rationale in favor of public financing, then, is not simply one of “cleaning up elections” but also one of “opening up the system,” offering a more robust debate and getting useful political information into the hands of voters.

When presented that way, a fair number of incumbents should embrace public financing of campaigns. It rarely threatens their own reelections, and it frees them from the unpleasant task of “dialing for dollars” in order to fund their campaigns. Most incumbents would enjoy being unshackled from the demands of fund-raising and spending more time with their constituents and actually governing. In fact, more legislative incumbents in Arizona and Maine have begun accepting public financing and opting out of the privately financed system, and why not? It doesn’t threaten them politically, and it relieves them of the loathsome pressure of begging for money from well-heeled donors.

Given the proper role of public financing in a winner-take-all system -- to rattle the Pyramid, to encourage political debate and get information into the hands of voters, and to occasionally contribute to an upset or two -- the rules should not be tailored to exclude independents and third party candidates. Alternatives to the major party candidates often are the only hope for shaking things up and reversing the stale formula of the duopoly we now witness as electoral politics. Third parties and independent candidates often have played a role as the “laboratories for new ideas,” leading the charge for advancements like the abolition of slavery, income tax, balanced budgets, women’s suffrage, the 40 hour workweek, Social Security, direct election of U.S. senators, and more. Political alternatives should be strongly encouraged, fully funded, and included in televised debates, yet some reformers write their legislation in such a way that only Democratic and Republican candidates have a chance to qualify for public financing. That’s exactly what happened when the Connecticut state legislature, with the support of leading campaign finance reform groups, passed public financing legislation in December 2005 that discriminated against independent and third party candidates. Lowell Weicker, who was elected governor as a third party candidate of the Connecticut Party in 1990, would have needed 200,000 signatures to become eligible to raise qualifying donations, while the major party candidates he defeated would not have had to gather a single signature. This kind of discriminatory approach undermines the good that comes from public financing of campaigns.

Public financing measures have succeeded at the ballot box in Maine, Arizona, Massachusetts, Albuquerque and San Francisco, and been enacted by legislatures in Vermont, North Carolina, Portland (OR), San Francisco, Oakland and elsewhere, but statewide losses in Missouri and Oregon have demonstrated that its viability is not a slam dunk. In places where it has been passed, it hasn’t produced many electoral upsets or helped to “throw the bums out,” as some had unrealistically hoped, but it has minimized money’s role and produced more political debate. In Maine, it probably has contributed to health care reform, not a small achievement. But mostly public financing’s success can be measured by the new faces and new voices it has introduced into our politics, in itself a significant accomplishment.

Free Media for Candidates

In addition to giving public money to candidates, another promising approach is mandating free radio and television airtime for candidates. Since broadcast media is the greatest expense of any candidate’s campaign, especially in the biggest races, this would be a valuable contribution to the quest for healthy political debate and challenging the Pyramid. By law, the airwaves are owned by “we the people” but handed over for free to the broadcasting corporations, a nearly $400 billion giveaway. Then those corporations turn around and sell back the airwaves to the candidates, even brazenly jacking up the price of political ads as the election nears. It is such a crooked deal. The government should require broadcasters to provide free airtime to candidates as a condition of receiving their broadcasting license. Mandating free airtime would cost the taxpayer’s nothing, but it would significantly reduce the pressure to raise gobs of money in competitive races, as well as enhance political debate.

Free media time for candidates is a practice already used by most established democracies around the world, and it works extremely well. Conservatives and liberals alike are supporting free media time, with Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute joining with Paul Taylor, formerly of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, to call for the distribution of vouchers for a reasonable amount of free advertising time to candidates and to political parties. They also have called for broadcasters to be required to air a minimum of two hours a week of candidate discussion of issues during prime time in the four to six weeks preceding every election. Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Russell Feingold (D-WI), and Richard Durbin (D-IL) have introduced the Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act, which would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to establish minimum airtime requirements on television and radio stations for candidate and issue-focused programming prior to primary and general elections. The act also would establish a voucher system for the candidates’ purchase of commercial broadcast air time for political advertisements, financed by an annual fee on all broadcast license holders.

While free airtime and public financing will open the political system and foster more debate, it is instructive to note that getting rid of the single-seat district, winner-take-all electoral system and replacing it with some of proportional representation would more easily accomplish the same goal. The use of proportional voting in Illinois until 1980 and various cities today shows that not only has it fostered more debate, but it actually elected more independent-minded candidates who didn’t need as much money to win, even when running against the political machine. That’s because proportional voting produces more contested and more competitive races. It challenges the Pyramid in a way no other reform can. When combined with public financing and free airtime, it would vastly improve American politics.

Americans should seek to pass public financing and free media time for campaigns at all levels of government -- local, state, and federal. Some concerned taxpayers will argue that we can’t afford it; I argue we can’t afford not to have it. We are losing political ideas and stimulating debate at a rapid rate. Publicly financed campaigns and free airtime will help minimize money’s role and open up American democracy to new voices and new ideas. Some may see those as only modest improvement compared to the unrealistic goal of “cleaning up politics,” but that is the best we can hope for given the realities of the winner-take-all landscape and the limits imposed by a dreadful Supreme Court decision that equates speech with money. Public financing of campaigns and free media time hold considerable promise for improving our democracy, and we should work vigorously for their enactment.

Summary of Reforms


  • Support public financing of all campaigns at local, state, and federal levels.
  • Demand free media time for candidates on radio and TV -- support McCain, Feingold, and Durbin’s Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act.
  • Include third party and independent candidates in public financing and televised debates.
  • Set appropriate donation limits.
  • Set appropriate spending caps on candidates (if we can sneak it by the Supreme Court).

Organizations to Contact