When The River Runs Dry

Campaign finance reforms could havedisproportionate impact on black legislators

President Clinton’s recent plea to Congress to pass campaign finance reform legislation seems ironic, especially since he makes headlines for using the perks of his office to finance his campaign and the Democratic Party.
But campaign finance reform has become a hot button issue. On its face, it seems clear-cut. Most voters would probably agree that tighter reigns on the ability of politicians to raise funds for their campaign efforts need to be implemented. But what many may be unaware of is how stringent changes may hit African American legislators or potential candidates more harshly than others.

“[Fundraising] is a tough business,” says Congressional Black Caucus member James E. Clyburn (D-South Carolina). Clyburn says that without access to the money bags of big business or the talents of White House pastry chefs to woo potential donors, some of the provisions of reform legislation threaten to reduce the number of black-elected officials to a pitiful few.

Of major concern was the President’s endorsement of the McCain-Feingold bill during his State of the Union address. The bill, currently in committee, faces opposition from the CBC and a number of other lawmakers. “There are some things in the bill that we like’ such as full disclosure on donations, public financing of congressional campaigns and discounts on TV and radio advertising,” says Clyburn. “But I don’t believe any of us will vote for it. There’s too much we don’t like.”

Clyburn’s concerns include the legislation’s ban on contributions from political action committees (PACs). Such a ban would be particularly damaging to CBC members, who raised more than $7 million in PAC money during the 1995-96 election cycle. It would also put them at an even greater disadvantage when running against wealthy candidates, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to limit the amount of personal income an individual can spend on his or her own campaign.

In addition to voluntary spending limits, the McCain-Feingold bill calls for candidates to raise 60% of their campaign funds from the districts in which they are running. Candidates in poorer districts would not be able to accept contributions from individuals–such as friends and family members–in other states and would be forced to rely on constituents in financially strapped areas.

“This is one of the worst reforms from the point of view of the CBC,” notes senior political analyst David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “Such restrictions would also handicap candidates who aspire to rise up the ranks of leadership,” says Bositis. “If you want to be a player in the leadership, it’s essential that you raise money,” he adds.

Despite their objections, “I think it’s fair to say that every CBC member has an interest in preserving or restoring some sort of sensibility to campaign financing,” says Clyburn. Black legislators, he adds, are wary of being left hung out to dry in the process.

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