Talking Down Reform: Filibustering Campaign Reform
By Ann McBride
Vol. 10, No. 2, 1988, pp. 4-5
During February, the cots were back in the United States Capitol. For the first time in years, the Senate was involved in an extended round-the-clock filibuster-endless debate to thwart the will of the majority.
The bill under discussion was S.2-the Senatorial Election Campaign Act. This measure, introduced in 1987 on the first day of the 100th Congress, is a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill, designed to fundamentally transform congressional campaign financing. And while S.2 has fifty-two Senate co-sponsors and broad support in the country, a minority of Senators has blocked the bill.
There can be little debate that the present campaign financing system is in desperate need of reform. Unlimited campaign spending, in the words of Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), threatens to make Congress “a part-time legislature because we must be full-time fund-raisers.” Congressional campaign costs have increased fivefold since 1974, totaling $373 million in the 1986 elections. An average Senate seat now costs $3 million, requiring candidates to raise the equivalent of about $10,000 every week during a six-year term. The average cost of a House seat has also soared-from $87,000 in 1976 to $329,000 in 1986.
With these costs, only those who are personally wealthy, or those willing and able to raise large sums from special interests, can even consider seeking congressional office. This system of unlimited spending creates an arms race mentality in Congress-candidates faced with an unlimited spending system seek huge and ever-growing sums of money to run their campaigns.
Freshman Senator John Breaux (D-La.), elected in 1986, says: “MY first task in considering whether I would have the opportunity one day to serve in the U.S. Senate was not whether I was old enough, constitutionally, or whether I was smart enough to handle the job … whether I had any ability to legislate, which is the duty of this very august body. The first question I had to decide was how I was going to raise enough money…. How much of my life and family life was I going to have to commit to raising enough money before I would be able to have the opportunity to exercise any talent or ability or education to be a good member of the U.S. Senate.”
And retiring Senate President Pro Tem John Stennis (D-Miss.), first elected in 1947, said, “The amount and sources of money spent in Senate campaigns is an embarrassment to our country and it is a blot on the integrity of the Senate because of the appearance of impropriety.”
With the increase in campaign costs, congressional candidates have increasingly gone hat-in-hand to the special interest political action committees (PACs). In 1974, PACs gave $12.5 million to congressional candidates. By 1986, PAC giving exceeded $130 million. As a result, the 100th Congress came into office more indebted to special interest PACs than any other in history.
PAC money, far from being even-handed, heavily favors incumbents over challengers. In the 1986 election cycle, PACs gave $90.7 million to Senate and House incumbents and only $19.4 million to challengers. In the same election, according to a Common Cause study, one-third of all PACs gave 80 percent or more of their contributions to Senate and House incumbents.
PAC money is money given for a legislative purpose-it is contributed to provide special access and special influence for special interest groups on Capitol Hill. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) put it most bluntly: “We are the only human beings in the world who are expected to take thousands of dollars from perfect strangers on important matters and not be affected by it.”
To be sure, PAC contributions do not necessarily guarantee votes or support; PACs do not always win. But the influx of special interest money is eroding public confidence in our elected officials and creating the image-if not always the reality-that PACs are buying access, influence and results in the United States Congress. Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) has said, “The average citizen feels that public officials are beholden to special interests. This sense of alienation, this feeling that the electoral system is no longer their system, is responsible for much of the cynicism and lack of participation by citizens in politics today.”
S.2 squarely addressed the fundamental problems of the current system-unlimited spending and ever-increasing dependence on PAC dollars.
First, S.2 would establish a system of spending limits for Senate elections; the individual limits would be based on the population of each state. In return for agreeing to
spending limits, Senate candidates would receive public benefits, such as reduced mailing costs for their campaigns. No direct public financing is provided as long as both candidates agree to abide by spending limits. If one candidate decides not to participate, and raises funds or makes campaign expenditures in excess of the spending limit, then public money would be provided to his or her opponent.
Second, S.2 would limit the growing dependence on PAC dollars by establishing an overall limit on the amount of PAC contributions a candidate may accept. For House candidates, the limit is $100,000; the Senate limits are based on the population of each state. If the S.2 limits had been in effect in 1986, PAC contributions to Senate candidates would have been cut by two-thirds-from $45 million to $16 million.
S.2 received strong support within Congress. Fifty-two Senators co-sponsored the bill-the first time since Watergate that a Senate majority has gone on record in support of a comprehensive reform bill. But Senate action on S.2 was blocked during the 1987 filibuster.
S.2 moved to the Senate floor in June 1987, and Majority Leader Byrd tried a record seven times to limit debate. While fifty-five Senators were willing, invoking cloture requires the support of sixty Senators-and the debate droned on.
The Senate returned to S.2 in February 1988 and again the obstructionist minority turned to a filibuster. Sen. Byrd scheduled round-the-clock sessions in an effort to break the filibuster and took an eighth cloture vote. But the minority prevailed once again. And S.2 was set aside.
During debate on S.2, opponents raised a number of false claims. “It will cost hundreds of millions,” they argued. In reality, if both candidates in a Senate race agreed to spending limits, no direct public funds would be provided.
“S.2 doesn’t do anything about PACs,” opponents claimed, ignoring the fact that the aggregate PAC limits established by the bill, had they been in effect during the 1986 campaign, would have cut PAC contributions to Senate candidates by two-thirds.
“S.2 will protect incumbents,” they argued, ignoring the tremendous advantages enjoyed by incumbents under the present campaign financing system.
“S.2 will prevent Republicans from winning in the South,” they argued. Yet this claim ignored the recent experience in the South. In 1980, for instance, four Southern Republican Senate candidates-all non-incumbents-won election while spending less than the limits in S.2. In 1986, three of these four candidates sought re-election as incumbents. Each Senator spent more than the S.2 limits, and each Senator lost.
This issue will not go away. Efforts to reform the system will continue.
Millions of citizens will be involved in the fight. More than seventy national organizations have joined the coalition in support of S.2. Included are traditional allies within the public interest community, but also joining the coalition are such diverse organizations as the American Association of School Administrators, the American Jewish Committee, the American Public Health Association, the American Public Power Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Farmers Organization, and the National Farmers Union.
In addition, more than 270 newspapers nationwide have supported the bill. The Washington Post, for instance, has called the current campaign financing system “fundamentally corrupt. Every citizen knows it. So does every legislator.”
As former Watergate Special Prosecutor and Common Cause Chairman Archibald Cox has noted, most scandals involve broken laws. In the case of the campaign financing scandal, the laws themselves are the scandal and they must be changed.
Ann McBride is the Senior Vice President of Common Cause.