Everyone agrees that the current campaign-finance system is dreadfully flawed, consisting as it does of a mishmash of contribution limits unadjusted for 25 years of inflation and a gigantic “soft money” loophole that has grown large enough to devour any and all financial restrictions. But the virtual defeat yesterday of the McCain-Feingold bill marks an end — at least for this legislative season — of any meaningful prospect for change.
There is, however, an America beyond Washington where not everything is at a stalemate. In California, citizens will soon be voting on a sweeping and comprehensive reform package known as Voters Rights 2000. With minor adjustments, this ballot measure could serve as a model for federal campaign- finance legislation.
A core element of the California plan is massively enhanced and expanded financial disclosure, made possible by modern technology. Under the plan, all contributions of $1,000 or more would have to be disclosed within 24 hours on a government Web site searchable and sortable by donor name, business affiliation, location, contribution date and amount. Nearly all sides in the debate over reform advocate such disclosure and George W. Bush’s presidential campaign is already providing this information voluntarily. Under the California plan it would become a requirement for all candidates.
The plan would also apply a 24-hour disclosure rule to information on campaign expenditures and advertisements, thus allowing the press, citizens and rival candidates to police the honesty and consistency of a candidate’s political message. Today, campaigns regularly engage in dishonest “narrow casting,” for example, sending a pro-life message to pro-life voters, and a pro-choice message to pro-choice voters. This would remain legal under the California plan, but it would become largely self-defeating.
All of these disclosure requirements would apply to initiative and independent-expenditure campaigns as well as those of candidates.
Much of the current pressure to exploit soft money and other loopholes derives from today’s low $1,000 federal contribution limit, which forces candidates to spend the bulk of their time raising money in small increments. The California plan would set strict but realistic limits of $5,000 for statewide candidates and $3,000 for other candidates, roughly on a par with the original value of the federal limit. By making fund-raising a lot easier, the plan would allow candidates to devote more of their efforts to raising and debating issues of importance to the public.
The California plan would combine these contribution limits with voluntary spending limits of up to $16 million in statewide elections and $1.3 million in district races (in both cases including primaries). Statewide candidates who agreed to these limits and gathered sufficient qualifying signatures would receive up to $2 million of free broadcast airtime and heavily subsidized bundled mailings to all voters; district candidates who do the same will receive the latter benefit. Campaigns that refused the voluntary spending limits could still participate in the bundled mailings, but would have to pay a proportionate share of the total cost.
Since the spending levels are reasonable and the benefits of compliance substantial, nearly all candidates would likely accept the limits, stigmatizing those few who do not. Candidates who exceed the limits would have to disclose the growing total of their spending on all advertisements, which would represent a formidable deterrent to overspending campaigns. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has prevented any restrictions from being placed on self-financed candidates, the combined impact should help deter future Al Checchis from spending $40 million of their own money on losing races.
The plan’s cost to the taxpayer would be minuscule, just $1 a year in California. A similar system applied to all federal races would probably cost much less.
Our proposal would restrict the use of “soft money” to the actual party- building purposes for which it was originally intended and prevent parties from using such funds to buy airtime or fund advertisements for or against specific candidates. Contributions could still be used for voter registration, absentee ballots, get-out-the-vote efforts and administrative expenses. Much of the stigma surrounding soft money has resulted from its increasing use for “hard money” purposes such as television commercials. Once soft money is restricted in use, the pressure to raise huge quantities of it from doubtful sources is sure to diminish.
Already the California plan has been endorsed by leading campaign reformers including Mr. McCain and California Common Cause. Even Sen. Mitch McConnell, the most prominent opponent of campaign-finance reform, has said he would support severe restrictions on soft money in exchange for an increase in the federal $1,000 limit to $3,000 or more, exactly the proposed package. Perhaps the California plan is a workable compromise acceptable to both sides.
If so, California voters may once again shape national policy through the impact of a popular initiative.
Mr. Unz is chairman of the Voters Rights 2000 initiative campaign and a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from California.