While Congress continues to procrastinate on changing the campaign finance laws -- the House will not take up the issue until September; the Senate, who knows when? -- things are changing in the states.
More and more of them are moving beyond the regulatory approach embodied in most of the proposals in Washington and are deciding that public financing of elections is the best way to reduce the influence of interest groups and wealthy individuals -- while satisfying the maze of legalities laid down by the courts.
The latest and in some ways most surprising development comes in Wisconsin, where Gov. Tommy Thompson, the dean of the 50 governors and a staunch Republican, is making headway with a proposal for partial public funding of state campaigns.
An appropriation of $750,000, urged by Thompson as part of a reform plan devised by a bipartisan commission, has been approved by the Senate-House finance committee and is awaiting final action by the legislature. The full plan has not yet passed and faces strong opposition, but Wisconsin could become the second state in recent years, following Vermont, to move to public financing by action of elected officials.
Since 1996, three others -- Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona -- have done the same thing by voter initiatives, bringing the total of states with full or partial public financing systems to 24, according to Ellen Miller, the head of Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based group supporting these efforts. Missouri and Oregon may have such initiatives in 2000, she says.
What is interesting about this phenomenon is that public financing is considered beyond reach in the Washington debate on campaign reform. Twenty-five years ago, Congress approved partial public financing of presidential campaigns by a checkoff on individual income tax returns -- with matching funds available to candidates accepting spending limits in the primaries and a full subsidy available for the general election.
But in recent years, it has been accepted wisdom on Capitol Hill that voters rebel at the idea of more of their tax dollars being used to pay for those TV spots everyone despises. And yet, when measures to subsidize campaigns from public sources are put to a vote of the people in states as diverse as Arizona and Massachusetts, they pass -- despite the reluctance of many local political leaders to endorse them.
In Massachusetts, both Republican Gov. Paul Celluci and leaders of the Democratic legislature looked askance at the 1998 initiative, but it passed by a 2 to 1 margin. Even with that big win, there was doubt whether the legislature would appropriate the money to begin funding the first publicly financed elections, scheduled for 2002.
Celluci put no request in his budget, but the legislature -- a bit squeamish about defying a public mandate -- did so, with the House voting for $10 million and the Senate for $13 million. The House could not resist adding a joker -- a requirement that another initiative be passed in 2000 reaffirming that voters really want tax money used for campaigns -- but it's not certain whether that will be in the final version of the budget.
For now, backers of the measure told me, they are confident that a series of annual appropriations plus voluntary checkoffs will produce the $40 million kitty needed to fund 85 percent of the expenses of Massachusetts candidates who accept spending limits in 2002.
In Arizona, where the initiative barely passed by a 51 percent to 49 percent margin over the opposition of Republican Gov. Jane Hull and others, opponents have filed two lawsuits challenging the measure. The state Supreme Court threw out the first one; the second is pending in a lower court. Meantime, the financing machinery has begun to function. Lobbyists are being asked to pay higher registration fees, and a surcharge is being added to civil and criminal penalties assessed in Arizona courts. Next year, people filing their state income taxes will be told that, for the first time, they can claim a tax credit of up to $500 for political contributions -- and, barring mishaps, public financing will begin in 2002.
The Wisconsin move is particularly interesting because Thompson, like most other Republicans, was initially opposed to taxpayer-financed campaigns. He endorsed the package of other reforms recommended by the bipartisan commission he had named. But when that measure was stymied by partisan battling in the legislature, Thompson endorsed the direct subsidy as a way of breaking the deadlock. In a phone call from Alaska, where he was vacationing, he told me that he hopes Wisconsin, which pioneered welfare reform under his leadership, "can be a model for the country" on campaign reform as well.
It will take more courage than Washington usually displays for that wish to be fulfilled.