Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Financing Elections

James Skillen


March 26, 2001

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is certainly correct, as he said on the Senate floor last Monday, that election campaigns ought to be financed in a way that dispels the "widespread belief that politicians have no greater purpose than their own re-election" and that they "respond disproportionately to the needs of those interests that can best finance our ambition" (The New York Times, 3/20/01).

Yet surely Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is justified in questioning the McCain-Feingold bill if instead of taking "the money out of politics" it only "takes the parties out of politics" (The New York Times, 3/20/01).

How can these two convictions be reconciled? There are three principles by which we should judge the progress and the outcome of the Senate debate. The first is that elected officials should owe more to voters than to the financiers of their election. The second is that the pressure on elected representatives to serve the public interest should be greater than the pressure to serve private interests. And third, candidates and officials should see and feel that their debt to voters and their obligation to the public interest are reinforced rather than contradicted by the system of campaign finance.

Judged by these criteria, the bill now under construction in the Senate will be very weak medicine. Why? Because the primary aim of this round of reform is to stem the flow of certain kinds of money rather than to redirect that flow in ways that will serve the three principles above. If the electoral system does not strengthen the connection between voters and candidates and between candidates and their public obligation, it will make relatively little difference whether special-interest money flows through parties, interest groups, individual campaign accounts, or political action committees.

The only electoral entities that voters—as public citizens—will ever be able to "own" are political parties. Consequently, parties ought to be strengthened to become the public-interest control centers through which voters nominate and hold candidates accountable. How can this be achieved?

First, the law should require that all campaign contributions—all of which must be fully disclosed—go to the parties, whether state or national. None can go directly to candidates. Even the wealthiest candidates cannot finance their own campaigns. Candidates will thus become dependent on the parties, which will have to do the fund raising, thus relieving candidates of the onerous responsibility that keeps them from their public-interest business.

Second, the law should establish a ratio for income into party coffers that requires a substantial percentage from smaller donations relative to the percentage that comes from larger contributions. This is the standard that every public non-profit organization has to meet. The aim, then, is not to stop the flow of big gifts but to pressure the parties to figure out how to enlist the support of more voters. This, in turn, will force the parties to work to convince more ordinary citizens that the party is for them and that their role in the party matters. A party that becomes dependent on big money (relatively few donors), regardless of the sources, will eventually be disqualified and no longer allowed to field candidates.

Third, the law should allow corporations, interest groups, labor unions, and lobby groups to spend advertising money only in support of their cause or in support of a party (or parties), but not in direct endorsement of any candidates.

The consequence of these three steps will be that candidates and elected officials will owe more to voters through the parties than to particular interests, and they will have more time to pursue their public obligation, which will be reinforced by increasingly disciplined, voter-controlled parties.

—James W. Skillen, President
   Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”