Reform for the Rest of America
The Washington Post
May 10, 2001
EDITORIAL - Pg. A31
In an attempt to promote their narrow agenda, some supporters of McCain-Feingold have discouraged a campaign finance debate that considers important democratic values related to inclusion, participation and equality.
These supporters believe that the bill has the best chance of being signed into law if the House of Representatives passes legislation identical to the bill recently passed in the Senate. Thus, those who raise legitimate concerns about the bill, such as some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have been labeled by some as campaign reform obstructionists.
Reservations about McCain-Feingold, however, do not always reflect the discontent of liberal extremists unwilling to compromise or the cold feet of self- interested legislators. The reservations reflect fundamentally different democratic values harbored by conventional campaign reformers and an emerging movement that has a more grass-roots, inclusive, civil rights position on campaign finance.
The conventional campaign reform contingency, which supports McCain-Feingold, consists largely of suburban, upper middle-class activists aiming to prevent the corruption of government by a few wealthy individuals who give large soft-money contributions in exchange for special government favors. McCain-Feingold advances these anti-corruption values by banning soft money, but it dismisses other values of inclusion and participation by raising hard money contribution limits from $ 1,000 to $ 2,000.
In contrast, an emerging movement with a multiracial leadership believes that the problem of money in politics is not simply corruption but also the exclusion of large segments of society from the political process. Even in the absence of corrupting soft money, less than 1 percent of the population contributes most of the hard money that funds campaigns. This group of contributors is overwhelmingly dominated by white men with household incomes of more than $ 100,000.
In a survey of hard-money contributors sponsored by the Joyce Foundation, a philanthropic organization, 95 percent of respondents identified themselves as white, and fewer than 1 percent identified themselves as people of color. This narrow class of contributors determines which candidates will be able to run credible campaigns, and it has special access to politicians and to the leadership of political parties. Those without resources are excluded from an important part of the political process.
Economic and racial disparities would only increase under the amended McCain-Feingold. While the soft-money ban narrows the political gap between the upper-middle class and the super-rich, the increase in hard-money limits broadens the gap between these wealthier interests and all other Americans. Just like the poll tax, increased hard-money limits further shut out those in our society who are the most marginalized.
Reformers have pushed McCain-Feingold without consulting with a diverse group of Americans and have not sought to make inclusion, participation and equality their priority. They should not be surprised when civil rights activists and others are less than enthusiastic about their proposal.
In the aftermath of McCain-Feingold, campaign reform will be measured by whether it makes the system fairer for someone like Fannie Lou Hamer, the voting rights activist who was also a poor woman of color. Like the full public financing proposal currently co-sponsored by several Black Caucus members, reform must better protect the rights of all Americans.
The writer is a law professor at the University of California, Davis, and a board member of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, which works to reframe campaign finance reform as a civil rights issue.