Campaign finance laws need a tune-up, not an overhaul

By David W. Almasi
web posted February 1998

If you were asked to guess how many of the 535 member of Congress filed complete reports with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for the 1996 elections, how many would you guess? All of them? A respectable 90 per cent? Are you skeptical, thinking only 40 per cent did as they were asked? Guess much lower -- it is less than 5 per cent!

Even though the FEC asks candidates to submit the name, occupation and employer of anyone giving their campaign $200 or more in a year, only 22 of Members of Congress filed complete reports for 1996. Since FEC rules only ask for candidates to make the "best effort" to supply this information, many simply do not put the time or effort into it. Not only does this flippant behavior fly in the face of the spirit of the rules, but it also sets the stage for potentially serious campaign finance violations. Corporate contributors seeking to gain influence by making contributions exceeding current limits could make multiple donations through their employees. By intentionally not putting forth the "best effort," a candidate could then cover up the incriminating information.

Congressman John Doolittle of California proposes instituting immediate electronic filings as a solution to this problem. His "Citizen Legislature and Political Freedom Act" abolishes the "best effort" provision, requiring candidates to file complete reports with the FEC by computer every 24 hours during the last 90 days of a campaign. Within a day, the FEC will then publicly post the reports on its internet website or a similar venue.

Unlike most campaign reform proposals currently floating around Congress, Doolittle's bill does not seek to further regulate campaign contributions or spending as a means of repairing the system. In fact, his bill actually does away with existing contribution limits entirely. Public knowledge and the stigma of conducting questionable fundraising in the open is the means of enforcement. If a candidate accepts large sums of money from an individual, a company or any amount from a dubious source, public disclosure of these contributions will be just a keystroke away.

This is just one example of how existing campaign laws can be refined to make the current system work without prescribing additional rules that limit the ability of the average American to engage in political speech.

Another pervasive campaign finance problem involves organized labor's use of member dues. Union bosses regularly use money collected directly from member paychecks to support political candidates and causes that members may not know about or even support. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that union members must, upon their request, be refunded any portion of their mandatory dues spent for political purposes in the 1988 decision in Communications Workers of America v. Beck, very little protection of the ability of a union member to engage in their own political choice actually exists. What is needed is an enforcement mechanism with teeth.

"Payroll protection" measures being considered in the states as well as in Congress write the spirit of the Beck decision into law, ensuring that union bosses cannot use member dues for politics unless the member gives annual written permission. In California, a ballot initiative to enact this protection at the state level goes before the voters in June of 1998. Similar initiatives are also being proposed in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon and Texas.

A recent poll of California voters found 72 per cent in favor of protecting rights of union members to make their own political decisions. This sentiment is found in national polls as well. As state legislatures begin their sessions, legislation safeguarding political choice is set to appear in all 50 states. When Congress revisits the issue of federal campaign finance reform this Spring, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles said the "basic principle of freedom" embodied in payroll protection will be a necessary component of any successful reform bill.

Any new, sweeping package of campaign finance laws may be ignored, just as many were in 1996. Worse, several of the proposed new laws would hinder the average American's ability to participate in the political process.

Giving old laws new bite by adding effective enforcement mechanisms is the best way to make our political system more fair and more honest.




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