Two-for-One Special: Campaign Finance and the Drive for 60

Resident Scholar
Norman J. Ornstein

A few topics have been raised by the final days of the campaign. First: The stunning news of Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama's fundraising figures for September--$150 million accrued in one month--has once again raised questions about the viability of public financing in presidential campaigns.

It is clear that the current system--created in 1974, first used in 1976, and fundamentally unchanged since, including the low spending limits in the primary and general election campaigns--is utterly broken. No candidate can run seriously for a nomination and stay within the system; few future candidates will be able to run in a fall campaign by taking the now-pitiful $84 million as the full allotment. The system either has to be scrapped, which would be a shame, or reformed.

The Internet has created an incredible opportunity to expand the number of small donors who participate in the political process.

There are two ways to reform it. One is to keep the fundamentals (which for the nomination phase are built around matching funds for small contributions for candidates who show a breadth of support in return for agreeing to spending limits within each state and overall) and sharply increase the dollar amounts to reflect current realities, along with realistic inflation adjustments for future campaigns. That path could also include an elimination of state-based spending limits but leave an overall cap. Since that would require a sharp increase in federal dollars at a time of huge budget problems, it is problematic.

A better way to go, in my view, is to take the right lessons from the Obama experience. The Internet has created an incredible opportunity to expand the number of small donors who participate in the political process, to make them a dominant part of the system. It used to be arduous, time-consuming and expensive to raise money from small contributors, making the cost-benefit ratio unattractive compared to big-ticket fundraisers. Now, the cost of raising such money is much lower for a much higher return than, say, direct-mail solicitations. A political world where the bulk of the money is coming from a large group of people giving $200 or less, as opposed to fat cats or special interests, is a very attractive one.

How about a system that starts with a full tax credit for contributions of $200 or less, with an income limit to reduce the drain on the Treasury and focus the effort on middle Americans rather than through a windfall to the wealthy? And then an updated matching system, 3-1 or 4-1 for such small contributions, for those candidates who get over a threshold showing serious breadth of support. A big incentive for people to give would be matched by a huge incentive for candidates to do the kind of retail campaigning and grass-roots action that would generate large numbers of donors. That kind of system, for primaries and the fall, even without spending limits attached, would be a big plus--and could also be applied to Congressional campaigns.

Second topic: As the campaign has taken a turn in the direction of Democrats, especially in Congressional races, the topic du jour has been whether the Democrats can get to the magic number of 60 Senate seats, creating what is widely referred to as a "filibuster-proof" Senate. It is a certainty that the quest for 60 will be a major theme in campaign coverage over the next two weeks; if Obama wins Virginia and North Carolina early in the evening on November 4, rendering the presidential contest a done deal, the networks will be scrambling for something to talk about; the other horse race--can they get to 60--will surely be a major ploy.

I have spent a lot of time with inquiring reporters and others explaining the myth of the filibuster-proof Senate. I start with the easy part: "Two words: Joe and Lieberman." But then I go on to suggest that if the Democrats get to 60, their numbers will include, besides the Independent Democrat from Connecticut: Ben Nelson (Nebraska), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Jim Webb (Va.), John Tester (Mont.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), possibly Mary Landrieu (Louisiana) and others who are not likely to fit a cookie-cutter group reflexively going along in unison to enact a program of sweeping liberal changes. On the other side, the likes of Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Barbara Boxer (California), among others, are not likely to join in if the plan proposed a set of seriously compromised centrist proposals.

Moreover, a Senate with 60 Democrats would mean that potential partners in bipartisan coalitions like Republicans Susan Collins (Maine), Gordon Smith (Oregon) and Norm Coleman (Minnesota) would be gone, with only two genuine moderate Republicans, Sensators Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania), left intact. So Democrats would still need to find a better way, with a broader coalition, to make major changes in the policy world.

That better way is not to imagine an American equivalent of a parliamentary majority. The last time we tried that was in the middle years of the Bush administration. The Republicans had some considerable policy success finding majorities within their own ranks, but eventually the price paid for the high-handedness and arrogance that went along with the approach was enough to cost them the majority.

Policy success in an Obama administration would not be built on perfect party unity in the House and Senate, but on the more enduring capacity of the president and his Congressional leaders to reach out and find a broader bipartisan coalition. That will be true whether Democrats get to 60 or fall a couple of seats short.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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