Campaign Finance Reform Aids Incumbents, the Wealthy

June 4, 1998

By David Trumbull


"The best hope for true campaign finance reform," was how the Clean Elections Law ballot question was described in a May 21, 1998 Cambridge Chronicle article. Well, as the saying goes, "to innovate is not always reform," and this proposal is neither. Many of the current problems with campaign finance are the result of an earlier well-intentioned but mistaken attempt at reform--this proposal is more of the same.

"We can get the money"--Richard M. Nixon

Well-intentioned reformers thought they could hinder the special interests' ability "buy" an election. Their method, limiting contributions, has not worked. Limits give incumbents who--due to their incumbency--enjoy high name recognition, and rich candidates who can fund their own campaigns, a significant advantage over little-known challengers struggling to raise money. In a perverse way, the low contribution caps put even more emphasis on fundraising.

When I ran for Cambridge City Council last year I raised the most money of any challenger, but that was a small fraction of what the incumbents raised. My campaign funds came from scores of ordinary people who supported me. I did not have access to great personal wealth or to wealthy friends. I would rather have relied on major contributors to fund the race, giving me freedom to campaign on issues of interest to Cambridge voters--instead I spent the greater part of my time raising money in small increments. Lower the cap, as some are proposing, and I would need to spend even more time chasing contributors and less time talking about issues.

I say remove all caps and strengthen the reporting requirements. I believe that there is more harm in the current practices of giving under names of family members and through untraceable soft money than there is in letting individuals give as much as they want, provided it is fully disclosed.

Why not permit corporations to give to candidates? They now give indirectly through Political Action Committees. I help decide which candidates for U.S. House and Senate my employer's federal PAC will support. The names of our PAC's contributors, along with the names of their employers, are a matter of public record. Other corporate giving ought to be placed under similar reporting requirements.

Corporations now give illegally through "bundling" of checks from individuals, and through difficult to trace "soft money." Abolishing the prohibition on direct corporate giving would remove the incentive for such clandestine giving. Let citizens know which companies are trying to influence elections, rather than maintain the current system of pretending that we can stop corporate giving.

Some people favor public (i.e., tax-payer) funding of campaigns, but that has its own problems. Give free money to all candidates and you risk encouraging candidates who would not run if they had to raise money themselves. Having many candidates is not in itself bad, but under our "winner take all" system in state and federal elections it is easy to imagine the vote splitting many ways, resulting in a winner who has gotten much less than a majority of the votes. Under the current rules, Presidential candidates who raise money from private sources are eligible to receive federal matching money, but even this limited type of public funding of elections does not enjoy wide support among the populace judging from opinion polls and the relatively small number of Americans who check off the Presidential Campaign Fund box on their tax return.

Money is the mothers milk of politics

Yes, it is true, it takes money to run for office. According to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance the average candidate for State Senate spends $51,000. The average candidate for State Representative spends nearly twenty grand on printing, postage, and other expenses of running for office.

Ironically, political campaigns actually cost much less than many people think. At a meeting at the old Wursthaus Restaurant in Cambridge during her 1994 campaign of U.S. Senate, Conservative Party candidate Susan Gallagher alluded to the $5 million voluntary spending cap of incumbent Democrat John Kerry and Republican challenger William Weld when she said that the Senate should not be "a very exclusive club--almost all of them are millionaires." Well, let's do some math: there are about three-and-one-half million voters in Massachusetts, most of whom will not give any thought to the November election until September, giving a politician two months in which to sway voters. Five million dollars, divided by three-and-one-half million voters makes $1.43 per voter--not very much! In fact, American companies spend more in twelve weeks advertising candy and soft drinks than all the candidates of both parties spend for all U.S. House and Senate races in two years!

Our elections do not (with perhaps a few exceptions) cost too much. Considering what is a stake--who will represent us on Beacon Hill or Capitol Hill--and the number of voters to reach in a short time, most of the candidates do a remarkable job of getting their message out with relatively little cash. Lowering the amount that an individual may give a candidate will not remove money from politics (the prices of postage stamps and of paper for letters tend to go up, not down). In fact, lower contribution limits will force candidates to spend even more time seeking more contributors (and less time talking about issues), while creating even greater incentive to evade the limits. True campaign finance reform, by focusing on full disclosure, will yield a system that is accountable to the voters.


Lee Street resident David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee