BuzzFlash Interview, The President of Common Cause, Scott Harshburger
Will campaign finance reform legislation pass out of the U.S. House of Representatives this fall? As Congress reconvenes, BuzzFlash put that question to Scott Harshbarger, President of Common Cause. Founded in 1970, Common Cause is the leading citizens' lobby working for a fair, clean, open and accountable government. From its earliest days, it has focused on campaign finance reform.
Harshbarger came to Common Cause after having served as Attorney General of Massachusetts, where he won national recognition for his work on civil rights and hate crimes enforcement, treating guns as consumer products, prosecution of white collar crime and public corruption, and crime prevention. He joined Common Cause in 1999.
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BUZZFLASH: Obviously, weíre on the threshold of a major showdown on campaign finance reform. What is your take on where we are with the McCain-Feingold Bill?
HARSHBARGER: Right now, we are 13 signatures away from having a majority in the House of Representatives sign a discharge petition, which would force Speaker Hastert to have a vote on the House equivalent of McCain-Feingold, the Shays-Meehan Bill. A month and a half ago, the Speaker broke his promise to allow a fair up or down vote in the House on Shays-Meehan. As a result, weíve had to now go back and try and force a vote. So this is one of those times when people all over the country, by calling their member of Congress and asking them to vote to sign the discharge petition and vote for reform, can make a big difference.
This is about power. This is about whose voice will be heard. Itís about whether we will at least eliminate some of the major forces that get heard solely because they can provide huge amounts of campaign contributions to people in elected offices and especially the special interests that really dictate the agenda.
BUZZFLASH: Are you optimistic about achieving the required number of signatures to force a vote on the House floor?
HARSHBARGER: I am cautiously optimistic because, as you point out, there are a large number of members of Congress who have twice before supported the Shays-Meehan Bill, which was even a stronger bill at that time. And who this time have so far refused to sign the discharge petition. And we think that the reality here is that if the Democrats alone all sign the petition, it could move forward. And if several of the Republicans who have in the past supported reform would do so, it will succeed. So weíre trying to make it very clear that this is not a procedural vote.
In short, if you donít sign this petition, you are not for reform. If you donít sign this petition, you cannot say that you want to ban soft money, whether youíre a Republican or Democrat. Itís that simple, and that basic. And weíre forced into that position because Speaker, Hastert, very consciously and for whatever reason, decided to break his promise to allow a fair vote in July on this issue.
BUZZFLASH: There has been repeated speculation in the press, particularly in the Washington Post and the New York Times, that minority legislators have backed off their support for campaign finance reform. Do you have any comment on that?
HARSHBARGER: It is very clear that some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have at least at this point been reluctant to support a bill that they consistently voted for in the past. On the other hand, the leaders of the Caucus, Representative John Lewis and Congressman Harold Ford, have been very strong supporters. So thatís important. I think that the members who are balking recognize that this is getting some attention for their other issues.
And I think what we are really seeing here is the members of the Congressional Black Caucus wielding some power. And, in part, making sure that their voices are being heard in the Democratic Party. Beyond that, I think that the position that Congressman Ford and Congressman Lewis have taken, and the majority of the Caucus, is that in the long run, the only way for people of color, for people in urban communities, for people who donít have the corporate and other resources to be heard fairly in our system of government to have their voices heard is to have major campaign finance reform. The fact is that soft money, the special interest money, consistently has not supported the interests of people of color Ė whether itís civil rights issues, healthcare, or employment, at any level. And thatís why Congressman Ford and Congressman Lewis have been eloquent spokespersons for reform.
BUZZFLASH: Obviously, over the years, Common Cause has had some victories, but itís been very slow. Campaign finance reform seems like an issue that enjoys broad public support but somehow because it, for whatever reason, doesnít end up, from the perception of either political party, influencing voter decisions in elections that much, it languishes in Congress. Do you have any feeling why this doesnít become Ė or seem to become Ė a real strong campaign issue that people will vote on?
HARSHBARGER: When people understand that this is about the special interests and whether at least the public interest will be heard and the peopleís voice will be heard, then they support reform. And that is what the John McCain presidential campaign demonstrated. Thatís why there is consistently broad public support for reform that takes on the special interests and at least tries to ensure that the people's voice gets heard.
Now, the difficulty is that we often donít translate this into how it affects the average person. And one of our challenges is how to make it clear to the consumer in California that itís not an accident that thereís an energy crisis in California and that he or she is paying for it, in higher taxes, in higher energy costs, because the major energy companies gave huge amounts of campaign contributions to political leaders in California. And then they determined how the energy policy would work in California, and itís not an accident that the consumerís voice was not heard.
Itís only when people understand and they care about gun control or responsible common-sense gun safety provisions that most people support, they wonder why doesnít this get enacted? Well, if they look at the fact that the NRA, in addition to its strong membership, also contributes millions of dollars to candidates for the state legislature and candidates for Congress every year, that keeps these things from being voted upon, then they begin to see that it may matter to them. The same thing is true about tobacco. Itís true about healthcare. Itís true about prescription drugs.
The real challenge here is to have people understand that how we finance our elections at the present time determines who gets to be heard in Washington. As John McCain says, the people who pay to play, the people who have the influence, the corporations, the wealthy individuals, and often the powerful unions, get to sit in the front row and they have a megaphone. And the average person gets to sit in the back and just whispers.
So this is all about power. Itís all about who does the government represent: the corporate interests, the special interests, or the people? And our challenge is to keep trying to show day in and day out, if you care about the environment, if youíre a consumer, you need to support campaign finance reform. Because itís the only way that your voice and interests are going to be heard in state capitols and in Washington, D.C.
BUZZFLASH: Let me ask you this. There have been a few states, unfortunately quite a small number, that have experimented in "so-called: clean elections. Maine is one of them. What have we learned from these states, and what specifically are they providing us as an alternative model?
HARSHBARGER: We have learned from Maine and Arizona two things. One is that if the people get a chance to vote on what kind of a campaign finance system they support, they generally support one that levels the playing field. One that doesnít take money completely out of politics, because nobody can do that. Nor is that realistic. But what Maine and Arizona have done is to pass laws that allow people to run for office regardless of whether they can raise huge amounts or regardless of whether they have the backing of special interests. If they run for office in Maine and Arizona and if they raise a certain amount of money from a certain number of people, they get essentially public funding paid for by the citizens that will enable them to have at least enough money to run an effective campaign, as long as they agree to limit spending.
It ultimately is about public financing of elections. It is about saying that since you run for office to represent the public interest, then public financing is the way to campaign. It means that you donít have to spend all your time raising money in a campaign. It means you donít have to figure out how you can raise sufficient money to be on television, not because you wonít be on television, but because it means that there is a level playing field. And that has tended to attract more people to run for office. It gives people a sense that itís not a foregone conclusion who will win. Because too often in this system, people donít run for office because they know they canít raise the money. And if they canít raise the money, then television wonít cover them. So these laws are designed to allow the peopleís voice and public funding to determine who the candidates will be.
But thatís the ultimate goal that we have in Common Cause as well. Itís just that realistically, the people who are in office, the incumbents, they fight even an incremental step like banning soft money. This is incumbency protection. This is not about Democrats or Republicans. This is about if youíre in office, you donít want to support a change in the system. You donít want to support changes that might mean you have to face a contested election or you might lose. So this is all about almost forcing people who are in office to change the rules.
And we know that itís not just in Congress where weíve faced this resistance. Massachusetts, my home state, passed a clean elections law, which is voluntary public financing. But the Democratic legislature has refused to fund that law, because it would mean that all of them are likely to have challengers in the next election. Thatís why this is fundamentally about whether incumbents, people who already hold elected office, are willing, on their own, to change and reform the laws in the public interest. And, unfortunately, we learn that the pressure has to come from the outside and only if the people express their very strong feelings will this system change.
BUZZFLASH: What about the individual who is wealthy enough to finance his or her own election campaign. What is the Common Cause position on that?
HARSHBARGER: Our position is that we support the First Amendment. We believe that whether it is desirable or not, if an individual wants to spend his or her own money to further their own campaign, they are going to be legally allowed to do that in this country by virtue of the Constitution. What we support however, doesnít mean that we necessarily think that itís a good idea at all. Itís just a fact of life, that people can do it. Itís legal to do it. Itís Constitutional.
On the other side, however, the question is, will the opponent have adequate funds provided in some way in order to make the race competitive? Our experience has been that money alone does not win an election. Often what it does do is to eliminate competitors early on.
President Bush, for example, won what people describe now as the Republican money primary. Because by the fall of 1999, if youíll recall, several major Republican candidates, like Elizabeth Dole, former Vice-President Quayle, former governor Lamar Alexander, had to drop out of the Republican primary because they couldnít raise enough money to be competitive with George Bush. And since they couldnít raise the money, people discounted their chances. That was before one vote was cast. And only John McCain stayed in.
We think the money factor is important to balance by being sure that there are viable competitors, that there are contested races and that people who arenít independently wealthy or donít have the backing of major special interests or wealthy individuals, get various kinds of public support so that they can wage successful campaigns. And so thatís why making sure that there is some form of public funding for those candidates who arenít independently wealthy or donít have the backing of special interests, who in fact are really representing the people, get a chance to run as well. Because we know that if there are contested elections, in the end, money alone will not alone determine the winner.
BUZZFLASH: Let me ask you one final question, which is, for our BuzzFlash readers, what is the most helpful thing they can do at this point to advance campaign finance reform?
HARSHBARGER: The most helpful thing at this point is to call or write your member of the House of Representatives in your district Ė and if they support reform, if they sign the discharge petition, thank them for signing the discharge position. Support the ones who support the positions that you agree with. Donít only criticize others. You must support the people who have been willing to take these positions, particularly in situations where youíre in a district with a Republican member who sign the petition for discharge. They have taken a very courageous stance. So you need to support the people who support reform and thank them.
second is we have identified on our website the names of the people who
have supported reform in the past but have yet to take a position. They
need to be called and lobbied by people in their district, but frankly
from anywhere. If you donít speak now on this issue, it will be decided
by other people. So the most important thing now is for people to engage,
for people to say it does matter, that my voice can count. (Go to:
And third, we invite you to join Common Cause. Go to our website, www.commoncause.org. Join our e-mail list. Be part of our web network. So we can keep you posted about what is going on.
This is a very crucial thirty days, we think, in the history of campaign finance reform. Because if this goes by without a good bill being passed and signed, it means that for all intents and purposes, politics as usual will continue to determine the peopleís, and the public agenda in this democracy. And that's simply wrong.
BUZZFLASH: If a sufficient number of signatures are acquired for the discharge position, what happens then? How quickly is there a vote?
HARSHBARGER: Thatís still a question. I mean the fact is that the first hurdle is to get enough for the discharge petition: 218. And we again remind your readers that if your congressperson does not want to sign that discharge petition, that means that they are not for reform, no matter what they tell you. And thatís a fact. The second is once the discharge petition is filed and successfully has enough signatures, then the debate will be scheduled. Itís still up to the Speaker of the House as to when that debate will occur. But then we will want people obviously to lobby members of Congress to support significant reform. So there are still a number of hurdles. And believe me, they will put as many hurdles in the way, but as John Gardner once said, reform takes patience. And it takes a willingness to stay the course. And we just hope that people will join us for the next 30 to 60 days because we can win this one.
BUZZFLASH: But if the discharge petition, if there are sufficient signatures, that meet theÖ
HARSHBARGER: The vote has to be scheduled.
BUZZFLASH: Speaker Hastert would have to schedule itÖ
HARSHBARGER: Would have to schedule it at some timeÖ
BUZZFLASH: In this session?
HARSHBARGER: Some time this session, thatís right.
BUZZFLASH: Well, Scott Harshbarger, thank you very much for your time and for all the great work done by Common Cause. The battle for campaign finance reform is joined.
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