John McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona; Russ Feingold is a Democratic senator from Wisconsin.
In his Jan. 17 op-ed column “A Senate of Millionaires,” David Broder predicts that the Senate will see its number of millionaires increase in the future. He believes that if we raise individual campaign contribution limits, we will solve this problem.
We agree that campaigns self-financed by multimillionaires are a problem and serve to disenfranchise the average American. We must make campaigns more competitive and ensure that challengers have a real opportunity to beat incumbents. But raising the individual donor limit is not the answer.
We and 15 members of both parties in the Senate believe that reasonable limits on campaign spending, combined with other improvements in law, are the answer. That is why we have introduced S. 1219, the McCain-Feingold-Thompson campaign finance reform bill.
Our bill contains true reforms -- limited free broadcast time, reduced mailings, special broadcast advertising rates and in-state minimum contribution requirements -- that will give non-wealthy candidates the opportunity to challenge rich ones. Further, although the bill contains spending limits, they are high enough to allow a candidate to effectively communicate with the voter.
Spending limits will do more to level the playing field in an election than any other contemplated reform. Analysis of past races shows that incumbents raised and spent considerably more money than did challengers and that the candidate who spent the most money usually won the election -- this is especially the case in races where multimillionaires outspent their rivals. It is especially interesting to note that in competitive open seats, the candidate who raises the most money tends to win the election. Spending limits would change that dynamic.
This perverse system under which the richest take all has resulted in entrenched incumbents. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has compiled an analysis of congressional races in recent years and concludes that the candidate who raises and spends the most money, even if that money is his or her own, usually wins the election. Elections should be about message, not money.
The Supreme Court has ruled that we cannot stop someone who is willing to spend an unlimited amount of money for a federal office from doing so. That is the law of the land, and our bill conforms to it. But the bill does provide strong incentives for candidates to voluntarily comply with spending limits, regardless of personal wealth. Candidates who choose to spend unlimited amounts of their own money receive none of the bill’s benefits. Further, the bill raises the individual contribution limits for candidates who comply with the bill’s provisions when they run against someone who either refuses to comply with the spending limits or exceeds the personal contribution limit.
Raising the individual contribution limit does nothing to control or limit the amount of money spent in a race. It may actually have the perverse effect of discouraging candidates of modest means from seeking office when confronted with an incumbent with unlimited resources. Under the current system, an incumbent’s access to PAC contributions, and an incumbent’s appeal to well-represented interests in Washington who like to bet safely on election favorites, will almost always allow the incumbent to outspend his or her challenger.
In short, increasing contribution limits would do nothing to level the playing field and may further entrench incumbents who will always have superior advantages when it comes to attracting big money.
Poll after poll has revealed the public’s urgent demand for genuine campaign finance reform. These polls mark the progress of public sentiment on this question. The people’s cynicism about the way we seek office has grown into contempt for the way we retain office. The foundations of self government rest on the public’s faith in the basic integrity of our political system. That faith is shaken today.
This bill will not cure public cynicism for politics. But we believe it will prevent cynicism from becoming contempt and contempt from becoming utter alienation.
Our bill represents substantial, necessary change to the status quo -- a status quo that has generated a reelection rate of more than 90 percent for members of the House and Senate. We know that the current system has served incumbents well, and we know what a daunting task it will be to persuade Congress to reform this system. But our appreciation for the political realities and constitutional impediments arrayed against reform will not extinguish our determination to achieve that reform, because we know that the consequences of failing to act are far more frightening than the contemplation of involuntary retirement.