Editor's Introduction  

Finding Campaign Finance Reform
Gary W. Copeland

Campaign finance reform is one of the most intractable and most critical problems facing the American political system. Freely contested, fair, and competitive elections are the cornerstone of a healthy and functional representative democracy. When elections fail to meet those criteria, the polity suffers. Not only will outcomes shift to the policy advantage of those who benefit from electoral bias, but the legitimacy of the entire system may be called into question. Much of the impetus behind the term limit movement, for example, stems from the perception that elections are not competitive and unfairly favor the incumbent. A key component of dissatisfaction with the current electoral system stems from the way that elections are financed. But a formula for reforming the campaign finance system eludes us. 

The importance of campaign finance reform is also seen in that it is an issue that is capable of mobilizing voters. Much of the appeal of Ross Perot's reform campaign can be traced to the way voters see the influence of money on American politics. Recall, also, the acclaim then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and President William Clinton received when, at a joint appearance in New Hampshire, they agreed to address the issue. Largely the issue is latent, but it is important to the American public and capable of mobilizing them. 

Because the nature of elections goes to the heart of the process, determining the rules of contestation is, naturally, very difficult. Politics is about who wins. The rules of the contest largely determine who wins, so the rules are fundamental to all that follows and to who shapes the direction of our polity. What makes rule-making so difficult is that those who are the winners write the rules. If you ask Mark McGuire how large a baseball should be, he will likely respond: about nine inches. With a baseball that size, he is the winner. A larger or smaller ball might work to the advantage of someone else. Likewise, most members of Congress will be reluctant to make substantial changes in the rules that brought them victory. 

While members of Congress determine the rules, there are, of course, constraints. The Supreme Court, as we will see below in the Rosenkranz essay, provides a major set of constraints. Under extreme circumstances the public might also put limits on what the Congress does or does not do. (See the Kosmerick essay below.) But under these circumstances it should not be surprising that substantial rules changes are few and far between - even when many or most observers think a change is necessary. 

We entered the 1970s with campaign finance rules and regulations written in the 1920s and even those rules were largely ignored. The 1970s, though, saw a wave of action in the campaign finance area. By the time the decade ended we saw rules that required the disclosure of both contributions and expenditures, limited contributions to candidates, provided tax credits for campaign contributions, partially financed presidential elections with public funds, clarified the legal status of political action committees, and established the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to oversee many of these changes. 

Explaining what brought about these changes is beyond the scope of this issue, but it is clear that it was not politics as usual. In fact, these changes occurred in an era when much about the American political system was being changed. The way the House of Representatives and (to a lesser extent) the Senate conducted their business and the constitutional balance between the Congress and the president changed along with the rules of electoral competition. Many of these changes took place under the leadership of Carl Albert as Speaker of the House. To help us understand that period, the piece in this issue of Extensions by Carl Albert Center Assistant Curator Todd Kosmerick looks at the politics behind some of that early legislation. He reminds us that many considered the first efforts to be "weak and ineffective" and that more substantial reform was possible only after the "widespread contribution and spending abuses" of the 1972 Nixon reelection campaign. 

Still, many considered the revolution incomplete. In their view, elections were still not free, fair, and competitive. I arrived in Washington as an APSA Congressional Fellow in the fall of 1979 to find a House of Representatives that had just defeated what could have been the crowning glory of the electoral reform movement -- public financing of congressional elections. I found myself in a unique position to tell the story of the defeat of H.R. 1 in the 96th Congress. I came to Washington as a card-carrying member of Common Cause. In fact, I served on their state board in Iowa while a graduate student and was placed as a fellow in the office of Representative Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) who was the point person in the successful effort to kill that bill in the House Administration Committee. I mention this because my analysis left the reader with the very pessimistic conclusion that reform can come only if members see it as neutral in its effects on electoral outcomes.1 That is, rules could be changed only if the changes would not affect who wins. Finding a campaign reform capable of gaining the multiple majorities to work its way through the legislative system is nearly impossible under normal circumstances. 

Therefore, it is not a surprise that in terms of public policy regulating campaigns and elections, little has changed in the succeeding years. In fact, even the dollar amounts set as contributions limits have not changed. The $1000 limit established nearly three decades ago remains in place even though the inflation-adjusted figure would make that worth about $400 today. But while little legislation has changed since the 1970s drew to a close, it would be completely inaccurate to conclude that little has changed in the realm of campaign financing. 

Let's look, first, at some of the things that have not changed. One constant is that campaign finance reform remains very much on the public and legislative agenda. Further, campaigns are still largely funded with private money. Third, the cost of campaigns continues to escalate. Fourth, there is a very strong relationship between spending and winning (with the arrow of causality, of course, flowing both ways simultaneously). Fifth, most observers agree that candidates spend too much time raising money. 

In terms of changes, the cost of campaigns is qualitatively different from 30 years ago. New practices have been developed to aid the flow of money. PACs, of course, exploded in this period. Bundling as a way of avoiding contribution limits is commonplace. Soft money has come to dominate campaign finance. Independent expenditures have skyrocketed -- doubling between 1992 and 1996. Issue advocacy ads, often paid for by unregulated and undisclosed funds, are now routine. 

When thinking about reform, most observers will continue to agree on some key points. For example, if limits on contribution or expenditure, but especially expenditure limits, are set too low it will be virtually impossible to unseat an incumbent. Most will agree that money comes with strings, but interpretations of how strong or substantial those strings are will vary considerably. Some will claim contributions "only buy access" while others see legislators "selling their votes." Most observers agree that the public does not like or support the notion of public financing of congressional elections. Finally, most students of campaign finance agree that interested parties will find a way to make their preferences heard and to gain access to legislators. 

But disagreements abound. How much money is enough to run an effective campaign? How much money can one contribute without it adversely affecting the legislator's decision making and, hence, the public interest? Can we reach the objectives of reformers without public finance? 

For two decades, some reform proponents refused to accept anything short of public financing as "real reform." Compounding the importance of public financing, the Court's Buckley decision limited what other reforms might be enacted without using public finance as an inducement. To a very large extent, reform meant public financing and limiting campaigns (through limits on expenditures and/or contributions). As a result, public policy sat as the trend lines continued: higher costs, more time spent raising money, the declining real value of limited contributions, more and more unlimited and sometimes undisclosed money flowing into the political system, and so forth. Gradually, perceptions of the problems changed, and eventually new approaches moved into public discourse. 

This issue of Extensions looks at some of the changes in this area to consider whether a campaign finance reform can be found. We begin with an alternative model for financing a campaign based on Senator Russ Feingold's 1998 campaign. Well-known for his views on campaign practices that are reflected in the McCain-Feingold bill2 (that was filibustered in the Senate during the 105th Congress), Feingold felt it would be hypocritical to advocate those reforms while at the same time running a campaign based on the rules of which he is critical. He opted, instead, to run a limited campaign. His essay is the story of that campaign: What is a limited campaign? How does it work? How does one succeed? What are the advantages of such a campaign? 

Senator Feingold, on this issue, proved to be more successful with the voters of Wisconsin than with his Senate colleagues. But, in the 105th Congress, serious reform legislation did pass the House. Representatives Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) found a winning coalition behind a reform proposal similar to McCain-Feingold. Telling the story of that effort are two political scientists who had front row seats while serving as American Political Science Association Congressional Fellows. Victoria Farrar-Myers and Diane Dwyre served in the offices of Shays and Representative Sander Levin (D-Mich.), respectively. 

Both the Feingold article and the one by Farrar-Myers and Dwyer point to possibilities for reform. But any successful effort must anticipate what the Supreme Court might do when the legislation is challenged. The courts have been and continue to be quite active in this area, so we offer a piece by Joshua Rosenkranz to provide some perspective on what the courts have done in the past and might do when confronted with new proposals. 

We put together this issue because the thinking about how to regulate Congressional elections is in a transition period with a new, more viable set of policy options. Still, I find it hard to contradict the conclusion I reached twenty years ago. In order for reform to occur, incumbent members of Congress as well as the protectors of the interests of our two major parties must not perceive the reform as threatening their well-being. Farrar-Myers and Dwyre explain that we have 535 policy experts who produce a "jumbled discourse" so that as "reformers have attempted to find remedies, more ways have been devised to circumvent and short-circuit the current campaign finance system." The lesson from Kosmerick's investigation of earlier successes suggests that only when abuses reach epic proportions will reform come. As some of the work presented here suggests, many reform voices think that time is now. The question is whether a reform that must balance so many political and constitutional considerations can be found. 


1. Gary W. Copeland, "The House Says 'No' to Public Financing of Congressional Campaigns," Legislative Studies Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 3 (1984): 487-504. 

2. McCain-Feingold is a comprehensive reform package that would, among other things, ban soft money, limit and regulate issue advocacy ads, enhance disclosure requirements, put more information on the internet, and strengthen the FEC. 

 | Table of Contents | | Special Orders | | The Record | | Announcements| | Other Issues of Extensions |

| HOME | | Contact Us |
| Teaching & Research | | Public Outreach | | Congressional Archives | | Graduate Fellowship |

This page is best viewed at a resolution of 800 x 600 pixels.
Copyright, The Carl Albert Center