Ballot Box

Policy Corner: Gore’s Campaign-Finance Reform Plan

Interpretations of Al Gore’s campaign-finance reform speech in Milwaukee yesterday have focused primarily on his political motivation. Analysts have cast the plan as Gore’s attempt to woo unattached McCain voters and expiate his campaign fund-raising sins in 1996. (For a dissection of Gore’s positioning on the issue, see Will Saletan’s “Frame Game.”)

But what of the substance of Gore’s plan? Campaign-finance reform is one of the toughest policy nuts around. If the notion of reforming the system had sufficient political support, which even after the McCain campaign it probably doesn’t, the constitutional and practical obstacles are daunting enough to discourage many would-be reformers from pursuing the problem. Gore’s proposal is an ambitious and in parts original attempt at a comprehensive solution. Putting aside the issue of his motivations, has the vice president cracked the case?

Much in Gore’s plan is both straightforward and sensible. He would ban soft money as John McCain would, and also enhance disclosure requirements for lobbyists, sponsors of “issue advocacy” ads, and so-called 527 committees–a fashionable new loophole that Gore describes as Swiss bank accounts for campaigns. These are useful reforms, and Congress should pass them. The vice president’s more innovative, ambitious, and complicated suggestions are for free TV air time for candidates and a public-private endowment that would provide public financing for congressional elections. These ideas are probably unworkable.

The concept behind Gore’s free air-time proposal is that giving candidates a chance to present their views directly to the public will raise the level of political discourse and diminish the importance of 30-second ads. The justification for asking TV stations to run unpaid political broadcasts is that they have a civic responsibility based on their access to a scarce resource, the broadcast spectrum. License holders serve as “public trustees” of the airwaves. Gore’s proposal is that for the 30 days immediately preceding an election, broadcasters would provide five minutes a night for candidates to talk. The original inspiration for this proposal comes from Paul Taylor, a former Washington Post reporter turned full-time campaign reformer. Taylor, whom Gore credited in his speech, first came up with a version of this idea in a book he wrote about the 1988 presidential campaign.

Gore has yet to provide much detail about how his free air-time proposal would work, but it seems fair to assume that it would follow the recommendations of the so-called Gore Commission, which looked into the future of digital broadcasting. In a report issued in December 1998, the commission endorsed a “time bank” model that would give broadcasters considerable latitude in determining how to provide their five minutes of “candidate-centered discourse” every evening. Following the advisory-commission proposal, Gore has asked broadcasters to go along with the idea voluntarily.

The problem is that broadcasters just aren’t going to do it voluntarily. In the 15 months since the Gore Commission issued its recommendations, less than 2 percent of the nation’s 1,600 broadcast stations have moved to provide free air time to candidates. Leslie Moonves, president of CBS and co-chairman of the commission, couldn’t get his own network to go along. And the reason is obvious. According to a recent Bear Stearns report, political-advertising revenues will rise to nearly 10 percent of total station ad dollars in the 2000 election cycle (up from only about 3 percent 10 years ago). Broadcasters want the money.

Based on the dispiriting response to the Gore Commission from broadcasters, Paul Taylor recently abandoned hope that free air time for candidates might catch on voluntarily. This week, Taylor’s Alliance for Better Campaigns joined with 18 other public-interest groups in calling on the FCC to require the provision of free air time to candidates. When asked why broadcasters who have rejected the idea in the past would accede to Gore’s proposal, aides to the vice president say that he intends to use the bully pulpit to persuade them. Used in this way, “bully pulpit” is a euphemism for “hopeless case.” The only way the broadcasters are likely to act voluntarily is a step ahead of the law–that is, under threat of something worse happening to them non-voluntarily. Why not just say that broadcasters have recognized obligations to the public and that providing a modicum of free airtime to candidates in campaign season should be one of them? If the networks want to get together and come up with a standard on their own before government acts to impose one, fine. But by committing himself to a voluntary model, Gore more or less ensures that nothing will ever happen.

Gore’s other flawed idea is the cornerstone of his entire proposal, what he calls the “Democracy Endowment.” This is soon to be confused with the National Endowment for Democracy and points to an irony: Many in Congress are happy to pay for fair elections abroad but consider the notion of government-funded democracy at home an anathema. In any case, Gore would attempt to raise $7.1 billion in private money over the next seven years. The interest from an endowment of this size would pay for a system of voluntary public financing of congressional elections beginning in 2008. Candidates who took endowment money would have to agree not to accept contributions from any other sources.

A story in today’s New York Times points out the obvious problem: $7.1 billion is a heck of a lot of money for Gore to raise, especially when you consider that most of those who contribute to candidates and parties now would have no self-interest in donating. If Clinton was the governor president, championing small initiatives, Gore will be the university-president president, dunning the wealthy on behalf of his millennium fund. In reality, Gore has no idea whether he can raise $7 billion. He could as easily have said he’s going to raise $1 billion, or $25 billion. The response to this criticism from the Gore camp is that there are a lot of dot-com billionaires out there with spare cash rattling around. 

I’m not convinced that public financing of congressional elections is a good idea. We might be better off with a system of federal matching funds, which would make it harder for fringe candidates to turn politics into a remunerative career. Or we might be better off with just a soft-money ban, free air time for candidates, and full disclosure on contributions. But if Gore is convinced that full public financing is necessary–and there is a case to be made–why should rich guys buy it for us? Ensuring fair elections is an essential federal responsibility if ever there was one, not something we should have to go begging Michael Saylor types to donate to the country as an act of charity. And it’s not just the principle of the thing. If Gore got Congress to pass a straightforward bill, we could have a reformed system in place in time for the 2002 midterm elections, instead of waiting until 2008. Moreover, the public-private partnership aspect of the idea makes the whole enterprise hopelessly complicated. Remember the Clinton health-care proposal? A plan that voters can’t easily grasp is one that Gore will never be able to sell politically.

The bottom line is that while Gore’s campaign-finance reform agenda contains some useful ideas, it ultimately falls victim to the disinclination even Democrats now have to use government directly to address large national problems. Gore is afraid to propose a straightforward public system because doing so runs up against people who reflexively oppose expanding federal responsibilities. But what Gore comes up with instead is messy, confusing, and no more politically attractive than the public-sector alternative he spurns. Pervasive distrust of government prevents him from acting decisively to restore trust in government.