Public Financing of Campaigns

The Case for the Public Financing of Campaigns
Deborah A. Vollmer

As the Congressional campaign intensifies, the news media and the public will continue to focus on the fundraising efforts of the candidates. The news media will pay the most attention to the candidates who raise the most money, as reflected in filings with the Federal Election Commission. Those candidates who have raised the most money will be perceived by the media as the most viable. News coverage focusing on these perceived frontrunners will in turn shape the views of the public, as to which of the candidates is viable. Under our current system, for a candidate to be considered viable by the media and the public, he or she must raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

All of this is unfortunate. Candidates should be judged on their qualifications, including education, experience, creativity, ideas on issues and policy, and ability to motivate voters through grassroots organizing. Fundraising prowess has no real relationship to one's ability to perform one's job as a member of Congress.

The money chase in the modern political campaign reminds me of anthropologist Ruth Benedict's accounts, written in the 1930's, of the Kwakiutl Indians, who lived in the Pacific Northwest. We can learn much of a positive nature by studying the cultures of native Americans, but the potlatch of the Kwakiutl, in the extreme form observed by Ms Benedict, was not a practice we should want to emulate. At the ceremonial festival, elaborate gifts were bestowed on guests by rival chiefs. In addition, blankets, canoes, and other items of value were piled high by each of the rival chiefs. The goal of this contest was to have the highest pile, consisting of the most valuable goods. The contest was one of psychological warfare; the chief amassing the tallest pile was perceived to be the most powerful. When the pile was sufficiently large to make a suitable impression, the winning chief would set fire to his own pile, as if to show that his greatness surpassed even his vast material wealth.

The modern political campaign resembles the potlatch. Candidates raise enormous amounts of money and file their reports with the Federal Election Commission reflecting those amounts, with the sole aim of impressing the media and the public with the candidate's fundraising prowess. The question of how the money is to be spent is almost secondary, although one can be sure that in today's expensive media market, some of it is sure to be spent on mass mailings and advertising on television.

A major problem with our current system of financing campaigns is that there is a public perception, and in some instances not just perception, but a reality, that the officeholder's vote is for sale to the highest bidder. It is only natural that an officeholder would at least provide greater access to those who have made major campaign contributions. Even a conscientious officeholder must deal with the public perception that his or her vote is, in effect, for sale. A public official who has received large donations from the health insurance industry will be reluctant to vote for legislation supporting universal, single-payer health care. An office holder who has received large donations from political action committees representing pharmaceutical companies may be expected to oppose legislation restricting patents on drugs. An office holder who has received large donations from corporate polluters or real estate developers is unlikely to vote for legislation to protect the environment, which is opposed by those donors. Those who have received large donations from big oil are unlikely to vote, for example, to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling.

It is time for our nation to adopt true campaign finance reform-- in the form of public financing of Congressional campaigns. Congress should pass legislation providing for "Clean Money" elections. Under this system a candidate would raise a specified number of very small donations, and thus qualify for public funding at a level sufficient to finance a Congressional campaign. States such as Maine, Arizona, and Vermont, have enacted Clean Money legislation to provide for this system of financing in certain State elections. At the Federal level, U.S. Representative John Tierney (D-Mass.) has proposed "Clean Money" legislation, to apply to Congressional elections. Congress should enact this legislation.

We should also have regulations requiring the media to provide candidates with free and low-cost advertising time. These two reforms-- public financing of campaigns, and free and low-cost media advertising -- will go a long way toward making the electoral process open to qualified candidates who are not independently wealthy or financially connected. With such reforms, the fundraising prowess of the candidates becomes irrelevant to the electoral process-- and that will be good for democracy.

Editor's Note: Deborah A. Vollmer is a Democratic Candidate for Congress (Maryland, District 8).

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