An Englishwoman in Washington

'Campaign finance reform is popular because it provides a way for politicians to distance themselves from the nasty business of politics.'

Helen Searls

Topics Politics

At the end of March the US Senate took the unusual step of dedicating two whole weeks to debating a single bill – a bill about reforming campaign finance. You may think political parties’ fundraising habits is a tedious issue, but it is currently whipping US politicians and the US political media into a frenzy.

The bill, proposed by senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, aims to ban unregulated ‘soft money’ (money from unions, corporations and other ‘special interests’) from federal politics. Senator McCain, who challenged George W Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in spring 2000, has banged on about the need to curb the influence of money in US politics since anybody cares to remember. He has sponsored numerous bills and amendments on the money issue and it was the centrepiece to his challenge to Bush.

But where all McCain’s previous efforts failed, this time it looks like he will be more successful. And if the Senate and the House approve some version of his bill, it will be difficult for President Bush to veto such an apparently popular measure.

Campaign finance reform is now the issue of concern among many national legislators. In the past it was guaranteed to send any self-respecting politician (and voter) into a deep sleep. But a recent survey in Congressional Quarterly showed that it is now one of the top three special areas of concern for nearly all House and Senate members that were newly elected this term (1). Political pundits who followed the debate on the McCain/Feingold bill in the Senate said they had rarely seen such a well-informed and passionate discussion that involved all sides of the chamber.

Every politician is keen to be associated with campaign finance reform. But such enthusiasm doesn’t mean that all politicians are genuinely keen to see significant sums of money taken out of US politics. The recent senatorial debate illustrates this: despite the apparent widespread support for reform, the reformers could barely agree on a single specific measure. Even McCain’s closest friend and ally in the Senate proposed an entirely different set of reforms than the ones championed by the bill’s sponsors.

And the constant manoeuvring showed that many politicians were more concerned to be seen to be on the right side of the bill than they were about whether the reforms finally entered into law.

Many Democrats have long championed campaign finance reform – but only when the measures had zero chance of becoming law. In the recent debate, when success is suddenly more likely, Democrats have started to worry that they will suffer disproportionately by a ban on soft money. So individual Democratic senators have taken it upon themselves to vote for amendments that, on the surface, strengthen the bill and could be labelled pro-reform, but in practice could actually make the bill unconstitutional.

The same Democrats then voted to make the bill unseverable – meaning that if the Supreme Court knocked down one element of the bill as unconstitutional the entire bill would be taken off the statute books. Even though this measure failed, it illustrated that some Democrats hoped to maintain the appearance of being pro-reform without having to suffer the consequences of the bill.

In short, they wanted to sabotage the bill without leaving any incriminating evidence.

The cynical dealings of Democratic senators expose the real story behind the popularity of campaign finance reform. Most politicians like to be associated with campaign finance reform because of what it says about them, not because they really want to rid politics of the influence of money. Campaign finance reform has become popular because it provides a way for politicians to distance themselves from the nasty business of politics. At a time when politics and being political (or as both presidents Clinton and Bush love to call it, ‘being partisan’) is seen as the one of the lowest forms of human activity, it is obvious why today’s politicians want to be seen as being above the fray.

For today’s US politicians, backing campaign finance reform is in some ways the modern equivalent of anti-communism. Back in the days of the McCarthy witch-hunts in the 1950s, politicians and celebrities had to denounce somebody else as a communist lest they be denounced themselves. Today, the charge of corruption and falling victim to special interests works in pretty much the same way. You have to denounce money and special interests as a way of telling the world and the voters that you are against the grubby business of politics. And if you can specifically expose others as falling victim to corruption or the lure of money then all the better.

It is this witch-hunt atmosphere that fuels such senseless debates as the one around the Clinton ‘pardon scandal’. When denouncing apparent corruption is the only way to get ahead in US politics, it is little wonder that almost every politician wants to get in on the act.

In the months to come some version of the McCain/Feingold bill will probably become law. Whether the bill will actually have the effect of limiting the influence of money in US politics is dubious – but since that is only the side-show for many of the bill’s supporters few will be genuinely concerned.

What is certain is that the movement in favour of campaign finance reform and other anti-corruption measures will continue unabated. Now that US politicians have found a way of making themselves look good, just watch them milk it for all it is worth.

(1) Congressional Quarterly, 9 November 2000

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Topics Politics


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