|FRENCH PORTUGUESE SPANISH SWAHILI ARAB|
|US – ELECTIONS
Unpopularity of Public Financing: the Widespread Myth
The American republican system is marred with corruption scandals and tragedies. It is clear that the American People are willing to root out the damaging influence of “organized money” (also called “special interests”) on their system of representative democracy. Yet supporters of the status quo are not short of misleading arguments, backed by a four-decade old authoritative, conservative Supreme Court decision in many respects contrary to the will of today’s American people. The new democratic majority in Congress should not wait until2008 to pay the people back with the strongest laws that would eradicate the influence of “special interests” on the elected representatives and society. Clean election and clean Washington activists should move their noble agenda forward with the strongest push for a victory of democracy in America.
By Ndzana Seme
NEW YORK 11/12/2006 - Exit polls taken on election day, November 7, 2006, for the last combined gubernatorial, State House and U.S. Senate elections showed that corruption/ethics is the most important issue (41% of respondents), followed by the economy and terrorism (39% of respondents each) (1).
Yet, there is a widespread profusion of literature and opinions demonstrating that the public financing solution for electoral campaigns (2) would fall short of popular support. These opponents of public financing would often back up their demonstrations with Buckley v. Valeo, a case in which the Supreme Court challenged FECA as unconstitutional violations of free speech.
In fact in 1976, the conservative Supreme Court (3) struck down, as infringement on free speech, limits on candidate expenditures (unless candidate accepts public financing), limits on contributions by candidates and their families to their own campaigns, and limits on "independent expenditures" (election spending not coordinated with candidates or their committees).
An unchallenged, four-decade-old Court decision maintains America into corruption
Buckley v. Valeo is the case in which a coalition of liberals and conservatives attacked FECA (Federal Election Campaign Act) as a violation of First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
“Presumably dollars are not stuffed in ballot boxes. . . . The mediating factor that turns money into votes is speech. More money leads to more communications supporting the candidate. More communications supporting the candidate leads to additional votes. . . . Advocacy cannot be proscribed simply because it may be effective”, argued Frank Sorauf (4), one of the authors most quoted by the complaining lawyers.
Chief Justice Warren Burger even dissented the Court’s ruling, arguing that “The system for public financing of Presidential campaigns is… an impermissible intrusion by the Government into the traditionally private political process” and warned that contribution limits would restrict the amount of political speech and have a “chilling” effect on grassroots political activity. The loss of “seed money” in the form of early, large contributions would, he argued, discriminate against many candidates.
To fight the Court’s failure to strike the entire statute, notably the disclosure requirement, he further argued that “the public right to know ought not be absolute when its exercise reveals private political convictions. Secrecy, like privacy, is not per se criminal. On the contrary, secrecy and privacy as to political preferences and convictions are fundamental in a free society.” He warned that “ the legislation, and in particular its provisions for public funding of presidential campaigns, would be used by incumbents to disadvantage challengers, third parties, and independent candidates”(5) .
This argument is made in a country where private life of citizens can be found in all sorts of publicly accessible data warehouses, presumably for the public good of tracking individual credit, health or employment history; while information on businesses and firms is secretly protected. Should we dare say that the United States is not a free society? In addition, the imbalance in the access to campaign means between incumbent and challenger is presented as if it is irreversible. Yet, since over 30 years, these are some of the arguments viewed as unchallengeable.
Since the Supreme Court did not strike down the entire statute, citing the government interest in preventing the "appearance of corruption," and since bringing evidence of corruption is not an easy task, advocates of public financing are left only with proposing public financing as an alternative solution to “special interest” financing, instead of pursuing the initial goal of eradicating the source of corruption the people think “special interests” are.
Status quo advocates cheat, mislead and lie to convince
Americans value scientific arguments as a means of conviction. Therefore, even the decades-long popular support for public financing of campaigns is denied by supporters of corruption. In recent years, corruption has revealed itself as a dangerous social affection, which recently showed its devastating effects with the war on Iraq and its contracts, the New Orleans’ Katrina disaster and the failed funding of levees, and even the September 11 attacks some suspect the Bush administration has either secretly sponsored or intentionally failed to prevent.
Unsatisfied with Frank Solauf’s or Warren Burger’s opinions opposing public financing as a means to root out corruption from American politics, laudators of corruption often cheat, mislead or lie in their desperate attempts to convince audiences that public financing falls short of public support.
Without the necessary reserve science would command, Bradley A. Smith declared that “public financing is undemocratic in a most fundamental way: it is generally opposed by the public” (6). He backed his solemn statement with “A December 1990 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found public funding opposed by 55 percent to 38 percent. A January 1990 ABC News/Washington Post poll found 31 percent opposed, 20 percent in favor, and 49 percent undecided”.
Obviously, he did not bother to questioning the polls he used as an evidence of public opposition to public financing solutions. Yet, public policy academy warns about various biases survey questions convey in respondent answers, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls are notorious for their seriously biased questions as evidenced by the conflicting opinions found in their results.
These survey biases are better highlighted in a 2005 report by The Campaign Finance Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit institute, affiliated with The George Washington University (7) . The study is based on a survey and analysis of all major polls from 1972 to 2005, with an emphasis on post-1990 data. It reached the following conclusions:
• Support or opposition regarding public financing of presidential and other federal elections varies greatly depending on the language used in the actual question(s), and on the context and tone of previous questions. It also appears to vary somewhat according to the political circumstances of the time.
• Where the prior context and tone are relatively neutral, and the question emphasizes the basic rules of the public financing program -- such as limits on private contributions to, and government funding of, candidates with resulting ceilings on candidate spending -- there is substantial support for public financing, generally in the 50-65% range. Such rules-oriented questions leave it to the respondent to consider the possible benefits or costs of the system.
• Where the prior context and tone include statements highlighting the role of money or the influence of “special interests” in the political process support for public financing is relatively high, generally at the 60-70% level.
• Where the prior context is neutral but the question emphasizes the cost of the system to individual taxpayers, such as referring to “using taxpayer dollars to pay for political campaigns” rather than to “public financing” or “voluntary taxpayer designations of funds that do not increase their personal taxes,” support for programs is relatively low, generally under 20%. Yet where the question refers to “public financing” but omits any reference to the rules limiting public subsidization of candidate spending, support rises to nearly 40%. This percentage is far higher than the percentage of eligible tax payers who check-off.
Analyzing a similar April 1997 CBS-New York Times poll, not specifically the 1990 NBC News/Wall Street Journal Bradley A. Smith used as a proof of public financing’s unpopularity, the study characterizes CBS-New York Times’ questions as “cost-emphasizing questions” that “may produce a somewhat misleading portrait of public opinion”.
The authors find that CBS-New York Times’ “question emphasizing tax money, revealing only 18% in favor of public financing, is directly followed by another asking, ‘Do you think public financing of political campaigns would reduce the influence of special interests and large contributors or not?’ Now 50% of respondents say it would and 43% say it would not.”
“The two responses, negative and positive, strongly suggest that there might be considerably more support for public financing if its benefits were described and its impact on individual taxes were shown to be limited,” they explain.
Further light on the subject is provided by a April 1993 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which utilized a similar question, “Do you favor or oppose using public funds to finance campaigns for Congress, in exchange for limits on contributions from individuals and PACs?” -- and obtained similar results; 53% “opposed,” 38% in “favor,” and 9% “not sure.” But when two subsequent questions raised the issues of “how much influence” people “who make large contributions” or “lobbyists” have in “determining what Congress and the President do,” and the 62% of respondents who were opposed to or unsure about public financing were then asked if they would favor or oppose public financing “if money were made available by eliminating the tax deduction that allows corporations to avoid taxes on lobbying expenses,” 24% of this group pronounced themselves favorable while 13% said they were unsure.
Yet, support for public financing is actually overwhelming
In a report about a recent national survey on Campaign Finance Reform by both Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research, Celinda Lake, David Mermin, John Norris and Christine Matthews wrote: “In the wake of lobbyist scandals, the soaring costs of campaigns, and discontent with Washington, voters are hungry for a more open, clean, and fair system of campaign funding.” Their findings show just the opposite of Bradley Smith’s statements. About publicly-funded elections, their survey results are as follows:
- Three out of four voters support a voluntary system of publicly funded campaigns: 74% percent of voters support a proposal for voluntary public funding of federal elections (57% strongly) with only 16% opposed.
- Support for public financing of Congressional elections cross all party lines: 80% of Democrats, 78% of Independents, and 65% of Republicans support this reform.
- Strong support across demographic and regional groups: no less than 60% support and in most cases around three-quarters support.
- Support for public financing of elections helps Congressional candidates: Respondents were given a generic congressional profile ballot, with standard “Republican” and “Democratic” issue platforms. On this initial test, the “Democratic” candidate outpaces the “Republican” candidate by 53% to 37%. Then half the respondents were told the “Republican” signed a pledge to support the reform and that the “Democrat” refused, and vice versa for the other half of respondents. In both cases the congressional candidate who signed the pledge was able to increase their lead substantially over an opponent who refused to sign it. The “Republican” candidate supporting reform wins 49% to 39% over an anti-reform Democrat. The “Democratic” candidate supporting reform wins 58% to 29% over an anti-reform Republican.
- Voters support this reform because of the positive changes they overwhelmingly believe will come from it: Fully 82% of voters believe it is likely, as a result of publicly financed elections, that candidates will win on their ideas, not because of the money they raise, and 81% believe it is likely politicians will be more accountable to voters instead of large contributors. Additionally, voters also feel it is likely citizens with good ideas will have a fair shot at winning rather than just the rich and powerful (79% likely), and that special interests will not receive as many favors, tax breaks, and deals from politicians (77% likely).
One would say that Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research are not well known as notorious and credible survey firms. However, their survey results confirm the fact that political ciscumstances, one of the most important factors influencing respondent opinion, have never been that favorable to pushing for a noble democratic agenda.
The status quo supporters also proud themselves in quoting Thomas Jefferson(8) who said: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.” It should equally be admitted that it is sinful and tyrannical to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for wars which he disbelieves. It is even more sinful and tyrannical to finance wars, tax cuts and other unpopular programs with debts, which people in the future will be compelled to reimburse despite their opposition to such wars, tax cuts and programs.
However, advocating and pushing - to avoid the word lobbying - for public financing of elections will find various obstacles on the way. Obstacles will be set, not only by republican representatives, but also mostly and demotivatingly by democrat representatives.
Pushing for a total neutralization of “special interests”
House and Senate, republican and democrat representatives, are likely to favor only compromise solutions of public financing that go with the Washington current, instead of public financing solutions that swim against the Washington current and can efficiently eradicate the canker. Let’s remember that complainants in Buckley v. Valeo case were a coalition of liberals and conservatives defending the upholding of special interests in the role of influencing representative decisions. Many avenues are open for exploration.
The much argued incumbent/challenger imbalance as to access to campaign means may be solved with a system that would measure and record incumbent’s benefits in terms of public visibility and access to the people because of her/his public position, would prohibit incumbent to use her/his public office and related public means to incubate or openly advance political campaigns (neutrality and nonpartisanship should be the guiding principles of public office), and would set compensations challengers should benefit in terms of share of public financing or other public means. The objective should always be to put incumbent and challenger in an equal footing during political competitions.
It is obvious that direct speech is the real speech compared to indirect speech. The voice of the people and the writing of the people is real free speech compared to the money of the people. The people would never send to office the challenger they want if the condition for so doing is money contribution they often fail to donate, compared to the voice or signature they would easily donate. This leads to say that citizens’ voices and signatures should become a condition for candidate’s access to public financing, instead of the amount of individual and institutional money contributions raised by the candidate.
No court opinion should stay unchallenged when it is based on arguments opposing the will of the People – the sovereign in a democracy – and its government to individual rights, notably a right to individual privacy that is inflated at will just in order to hinder the manifestation of the government of the people by the people. Absence of a sovereign people is absence of democracy. Court opinions that consider the people as Plato’s rabble should be dealt with as antidemocratic seeds and a threat to the U.S. as a democratic society.
The goal should remain to taking out lobbyists’, PACs’ and all other special interests’ power of influencing representative’s behavior. Clean election and clean Washington activism should focus on the main goal. Weapons for victory abound in direct democracy, which is one of the main foundations at the origins of the American democratic system.
1 CNN U.S. House of Representatives / National / Exit Poll, 13,251 Respondents at
and Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, November 8, 2006
2 The debate is based on criticism of the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and the 1974 post-Watergate FECA amendment, which provided the option of full public financing for presidential general elections, matching funds for presidential primaries, and public funds for presidential nominating conventions; set spending limits for presidential primaries and general elections, and for House and Senate primaries; revised spending limits for House and Senate general elections; created individual contribution limit of $1,000 to a candidate per election and PAC contribution limit of $5,000 to a candidate per election; limited aggregate individual contributions to $25,000 per year; limited candidates' personal contributions to their own campaigns; limited independent expenditures on behalf of a candidate to $1,000 per election; ended 1940 ban on contributions from individuals and groups working on government contracts; abolished limits on media advertising; created Federal Election Commission (FEC) to administer campaign law, with Congress to appoint four of six commissioners.
3 Of the nine justices, only three (John Paul Stevens, Byron Raymond White and Thurgood Marshall) were liberals, not including Sandra Day O’Connor who was known as a kind of leftist republican.
4 Frank Sorauf, in Inside Campaign Finance: Myths and Realities, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, pp. 160-161.
5 Brief of United States, Buckley v. Valeo, pp. 236–255 (Burger, J., dissenting).
6 Bradley A. Smith, in Campaign Finance Regulation: Faulty Assumptions and Undemocratic Consequences, Cato Policy Analysis no. 238, September 13, 1995. Bradley A. Smith was an associate professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio.
7 Stephen R. Weissman and Ruth A. Hassan, in Public Opinion Polls Concerning Public Financing of Federal Elections 1972 – 2000: A Critical Analysis and Proposed Future Directions, Campaign Finance Institute 2005. http://www.cfinst.org/presidential/report2/pdf/PublicFunding_Surveys.pdf
8 Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, in The Portable Thomas Jefferson, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Viking Press, 1975), p. 252, as quoted by Bradley A. Smith.
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