Few years ago, the California Nurses Association began collecting signatures to place a “clean elections” proposition on the November ballot. Were the initiative only about publicly-funding the campaigns of candidates without deep-pocketed friends, it might actually do the state some good; but instead, it tacks on even more stringent contribution limits to all candidates, whether they opt-in to the campaign finance scheme or not. Far from encouraging more grassroots candidates, the CNA’s proposal would lead to even more of the very candidates they seek to avoid: millionaires.

Almost 10 years ago, Jonathan Rauch wrote a prescient article in National Journal entitled “Campaign Finance – Blow It Up.” “Probably no American public policy,” he said, “is a more comprehensive failure than campaign finance law.” Rauch argued that, no matter what, money would find its way into politics like water, and that any attempt to hold the flood back would not only be futile, but would also lead to perverse results, among them higher-premiums on rich, self-funded candidates and shadowy organizations only nominally independent from the campaigns they supported. His solution was an all-or-nothing approach: give all candidates the option to either raise unlimited amounts of cash from whomever they wished with full and rapid disclosure, letting voters, not bureaucrats, judge propriety, or be freed almost entirely from the burdens of fundraising by fully funding their campaigns with public money.

The powerful California Nurses Association embraced one half of Rauch’s idea on Monday and abjectly disposed of the other, beginning a petition drive Tuesday to place a “clean elections” law on the November 2006 ballot. Their proposal, called the “Clean Elections Campaign Reform Act” (CECRA), is a combination of introducing “full” public campaign financing for statewide candidates (funded by an increase in the corporate tax rate) and drastically lowering contribution limits to non-participating candidates. You can view the full-text here.

Here’s how it would work: if you wished to opt-in, you’d need to raise contributions of $5 in numbers ranging from 750 for an Assembly candidate to 25,000 for a gubernatorial hopeful. Once certified, your public funding would likewise depend on what office you sought, and whether you were competing in a primary or a General election. Gubernatorial candidates, for example, would receive $10 million for the primary and $15 million for the General. As a point of reference, both Phil Angelides and Steve Westly had spent about $6 million each through March 17, with much, much more in their respective coffers. Independent and non-participant expenditures used against you that exceed these initial figures will be matched by the state.

Meanwhile, the Act would lower individual contribution limits to $500 for legislative candidates and $1000 for statewide offices. Again, as a point of reference, the current limit for the Governorship stands at $20,000. Contributions by lobbyists and contractors would be banned, though I can’t imagine that either wouldn’t find some loophole to exploit

So what’s the problem? Well, there are several…

First, as Greg Kato already mentioned in his previous post about a similar proposal in the Assembly, this system holds major party candidates to a different standard than third-party candidates and independents. The latter would have to raise twice the number of donations (50,000 for Governor) to qualify, and even then would only receive half the funds their Republican or Democratic rivals get for the same office. Any serious attempt to foster “clean” campaigns and greater electoral participation needs to set a level playing field for candidates. Treat everyone equally, period.

The second fatal flaw is the qualifying threshold. Twenty-five thousand donations for a gubernatorial candidate strikes me as a bit much for a system that’s supposed to encourage grassroots democracy, to say nothing of the 50,000 donations you’d have to solicit if there’s not a “D” or an “R” after your name. Ten thousand sounds more reasonable. Anything higher would be insurmountable without significant logistical funding on the candidate’s part, counter-productive considering that the system aims to attract exactly those candidates without such funding.

Speaking of which, lowering the contribution caps to $1,000 for a gubernatorial candidate is just going to place a even bigger premium on self-funded candidates like, say, this one. Or this one. Or even this one. Maybe that’s the idea that the nurses had in mind: since almost no one could raise sufficient cash to run for Governor off of $1000-maxed donations, the limits would effectively whittle down the types of candidates to two: publicly-financed and completely self-financed, a backdoor route to the Rauchian ideal. Now, some argue the rich aren’t quite the threat to the Republic they may at first seem; after all, a millionaire is beholden to no one but herself. I would add: herself… and the source of her millions, and therein lies the dilemma. Few took pause at Steve Westly dipping into his eBay fortune to fund his own campaign, but what if he had made his windfall working for, say, Enron, or Halliburton? Plus, what of those candidates ideologically-opposed to campaign finance? Doesn’t CECRA effectively declare, “Libertarians need not run (unless they’re loaded)” ?

I should also mention that CECRA has ideas I like: matching the spending of non-participants, for example, and tying all the monetary thresholds and limits to inflation and registered voters; but the attempt to steer most candidates toward public financing by starving other funding options will backfire, I fear, and lead to a plutocratic nightmare. Let’s end the legal quagmire of campaign finance once and for all. Give viable candidates the public funding they need to be competitive, and get out of the anti-democratic business of over-regulating electoral behavior. Let the voters decide the propriety, or lack thereof, of each candidate. This solution may lack the policy theatrics of categorizing money sources and enforcing contribution limits, but as any victim of quick sand will tell you, sometimes the struggle makes the problem worse, even fatal.

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