Rules of Engorgement 

A new Tennessee coalition aims to tame campaign finance

A new Tennessee coalition aims to tame campaign finance

Judging by public opinion polls, Americans are somewhat schizophrenic about campaign finance reform.

They are widely dismayed by the corrupting influence of money in American politics—and sympathetic to major campaign reform—but few identify it as a high priority issue. No doubt this is partly a function of the sheer turgidity of the issue: The current campaign finance system is a legalistic web of ambiguous rules, flexible interpretations, and clever loopholes. Reform proposals are typically incremental, complex, and riddled with the potential for unintended consequences. This makes it hard for voters to get excited about campaign finance, and easy for politicians to decry the evils of “the system,” preach about the need for salvation, and at the end of the day do little else (but cash those checks).

Yet campaign finance is the river that runs through everything government does involving special interests—which means, pretty much, everything government does. Serious reformers will say, “it’s campaign finance, stupid,” but serious reform has little traction in the face of public apathy and a cash-engorged status quo that itself is inherently hostile to transformative change.

At the federal level, the mantra for reform continues to be the McCain-Feingold bill before Congress. Supporters give the measure’s soft money ban a good chance of passing both houses this year, although it could be dead on arrival at President Bush’s desk—or, more likely, amended to pabulum before passage to avert a presidential veto.

If it survives reasonably intact, McCain-Feingold amounts to worthwhile incremental reform. But the attention it gets obscures the fact that some of the most abusive entanglements of money and politics—and some of the most promising reforms—are happening at the state level, where McCain-Feingold would have no reach.

It should come as no surprise that Tennessee, which lags in so many aspects of fiscal, educational, and social policy, is also at the caboose in campaign finance reform. But there is good news: A new and potentially significant coalition backing campaign finance reform in Tennessee has taken shape. It is working toward modest gains in the current legislative session, and is seeding a significant push for major reform down the road.

It’s called the Clean Money Tennessee Coalition, and its member organizations include Tennessee Citizen Action, Common Cause of Tennessee, the League of Women Voters of Nashville, AARP Tennessee, and Tennessee Conservation Voters, with more to come. The coalition’s stated goal is to “restore public officials’ accountability to voters rather than money.” Underpinning this lofty mission are specific policy initiatives currently before the state House. The coalition supports two bills in the current Legislature, dealing with both contribution disclosure and reporting by candidates.

The first bill concerns the way political campaigns file financial reports with the state’s Registry of Election Finance, and how that information is made available to the public. The bill would bring Tennessee into the late 20th century by allowing candidates to file donor information electronically (gasp). It also would require the Registry to make campaign contribution information—donations both from individuals and PACs—available to the public over the Web.

If the first bill changes the “how” of contribution disclosure, the second bill addresses the “what,” and gets to the intersection between campaign finance and special interest influence. Currently, candidates for state office must disclose only the name and address of anyone who gives $100 or more. The proposed bill would add the requirement that candidates try to learn—and then report—each $100-plus donor’s occupation and employer.

This information is vitally important, because it allows watchdog groups to trace the real flow (read: flood) of corporate special interest money over, around, and through the twists and turns of creative campaign finance. This disclosure requirement has long been part of the federal campaign finance system (at a $200 threshold) for presidential and congressional races. Using data available through the Federal Election Commission, groups such as the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org) maintain user-friendly online databases that let anyone see, on a moment’s notice, detailed information about just which special interests put all those millions in, say, Sen. Bill Frist’s campaign war chest.

Supporters think the first of the two Tennessee bills—concerning electronic filing and reporting—has a good chance of becoming law this year. It would make electronic filing merely optional, and its requirement that the state disseminate filings over the Web already is widely used in other states and long overdue here.

Tennessee Citizen Action executive director Erik Cole describes the electronic disclosure bill as “low-hanging fruit” and predicts that with the Legislature’s public image in the tank these days, “they’re going to want to do something that’s reform-minded and makes them look better.”

The second bill—dealing with expanded disclosure—will be a tougher nut to crack. The reform coalition originally had planned to introduce a single bill encompassing both measures, but was warned by several lawmakers that including occupation/employer disclosure might prevent the electronic filing measure from passage. To be on the safe side, two separate bills were drafted. It’s a testament to Tennessee’s retrograde climate for reform that even this modest measure is seen as politically risky. For his part, Cole is cautiously optimistic: “It’s plausible” the bills can pass if supporters build pressure from the fallout of last year’s election.

An ever-present concern for campaign finance advocates is the looming threat of poison-pill amendments that would undermine real reform. In Washington, the McCain-Feingold bill will have to run a gauntlet of amendments that may, for instance, seek to cap soft money rather than ban it outright. In Tennessee, reform skeptics could try to raise, or even eliminate, contribution limits—injecting even more money into the system—in exchange for the improved disclosure regime being proposed. Cole says the reform coalition won’t be fooled: “We don’t want a dirty bargain where we get more disclosure in exchange for removing contribution limits.”

The longer-term goal of the new coalition in Tennessee is movement toward adopting what has come to be known as “clean money campaign reform”—a system of public financing for candidates at the state (or local) level. In a nutshell, clean money reform would create a system in which qualifying candidates receive public funds to run for office. Details vary, but the basic idea is that a candidate would qualify by raising a large number of small donations from voters at the start of a campaign. The system is eminently constitutional because it’s voluntary.

Clean money reform would make it much more tenable for candidates who are not wealthy to run against those who are. It would emancipate elected officials from worrying about reelection fund-raising so they could spend more time governing. And it would be less expensive than one might think. The advocacy group Public Campaign, which promotes both federal and state clean money reform, estimates that a system like this applied to congressional elections—all of them—would cost about $6.50 for the average taxpayer per year.

Tennessee may not be ready politically for a clean money bill, but there’s no reason the new coalition’s momentum can’t send a clear signal that this year’s legislative efforts are only the opening salvo in a longer war for civic and political integrity. Clean money reform is, in a way, mislabeled—it doesn’t reform a flawed system; it replaces it with something entirely different and consigns a fundamentally corrupt status quo to the political dustbin.

It’s a farfetched idealist notion that’ll never happen? Tell that to the voters in conservative Arizona, where clean money reform means the cost of running for state office has actually dropped. It can happen here too.

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