Unintended consequences of the clean election bill

By Philip W. Johnston, 11/17/99

overnor Cellucci's decision to veto the funding for the Clean Elections Law, together with the Legislature's move to alter a key component of the law, now calls into question the viability of the state's groundbreaking effort to reform fundamentally the ways in which we finance campaigns. There are ways for reform-minded leaders to fix what ails this initiative petition.

The Legislature's decision to roll the date back for triggering public financing and its accompanying spending limits is a sensible, although indirect, way to cure the practical difficulties with the law. Missing from the hyperbolic coverage of the issue is any discussion about the real problem with the Clean Elections Law as proposed.

When I ran for the Legislature in 1974, I spent $10,000 on my campaign. At that time, this was an unheard of amount for a House race. A quarter century later, the costs have escalated so much that a competitive House campaign against an incumbent can cost a minimum of $50,000, and a Senate race will be anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000.

Ridiculous? Sure, but that's the reality in an urbanized state like Massachusetts in which candidates must pay for significant mailings and advertising.

Yet, the law, the core of which I strongly support, would have the unintended consequence of not providing enough money for candidates - especially challengers - to run effective campaigns.

The spending caps of $30,000 for a House race and $90,000 for a Senate campaign are unrealistic and need to be adjusted. Without adequate campaign funds, the trivial matters the news media choose to focus on will continue to dominate political campaigns.

At their best, campaigns educate people about the differences in candidates' qualifications, philosophies, and their plans for the office they seek. Sincere candidates seek to take their campaign to that level of discussion. Where, on the other hand, will the news media go? Honest news executives will admit that their marketing analyses show that most viewers aren't interested in political coverage, and they'll be doing less of it. Like candidates, reporters and journalists cover the spectrum, but left to their own devices the media as a whole will not cover elections in any more than a perfunctory and superficial manner, unless the coverage feeds their marketing strategy.

The presidential campaign so far is instructive. We've heard a lot more about Gore consultant Naomi Wolf's ideas than we have about any candidate's, more about John McCain's temper than his thoughts, and more about the trick questions George W. Bush can't answer than the real answers he'd give on where he'd take the country. We will not find out what these candidates want to do and what they believe from the mainstream coverage, unless genuine candidate competition forces it.

Candidate competition reveals distinctions. Competition, in a news-light environment, requires campaign funds to disseminate ideas, usually through advertising. On the relatively evenly matched Democratic side of the presidential race, there's been a genuine debate about health care that gives voters some basis for distinguishing between the candidates. Al Gore has already begun television advertising - on his health care plan. That's healthy for democracy and for both Democratic candidates.

In Massachusetts, however, our future looks less enlightening than the presidential campaign. Buried in the Clean Elections Law are limits on spending that will not work in practice. For the 2002 governor's race, the spending limit is $3 million. Sounds like a lot? Governor Cellucci spent more than $7 million last election, Scott Harshbarger $5.5 million.

George Pillsbury, a leader on campaign finance reform, noted on the op-ed page of Friday's Globe that the 1998 election had one of the lowest turnout levels since the early 1800s. Three years hence, with the cost of TV time escalating rapidly and the effectiveness of advertising diminishing as people seek news and other information on their 57 cable channels and the Internet, the prospect of spending less to educate people will only mean a further decline - in information, interest, and participation. That will provide a tremendous boost to incumbents in the most unfair way imaginable.

The Clean Elections Law is of revolutionary importance in that it represents the first serious attempt in our history to rid our political process of the corrupting influence of special interest money. But in order for this law to work the spending caps should be fair to everyone. We need sufficient levels of public financing if campaigns are to generate meaningful debate.

The sponsors of this important law should work with legislators to make the necessary adjustments in the law to ensure that it succeeds and that Massachusetts becomes the first state in the nation to sponsor campaigns that truly are clean.

Philip W. Johnston is a former state legislator and serves on the advisory board of the Clean Elections Campaign.