Russ Feingold on the Path to Campaign Finance Reform

By Staff, Interview
Public Campaign, March 16th, 2013

Although the Watergate scandal and its web of bagmen and illegal contributions led to some new, much needed election rules and regulations, it took 30 years until the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act in 2002 made unprecedented changes to the way elections are funded.

We were "moving in the right direction," former Senator Russ Feingold, co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold law, said to Moyers & Company senior writer Michael Winship at Common Cause's recent conference commemorating the 40th anniversary of Watergate. But the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision - which Feingold describes as "lawless, almost absurd" - and other rulings have eviscerated campaign finance reform in America. Nonetheless, Feingold believes that scandal and change will come - that the current system of virtually unlimited and often anonymous campaign monies is not sustainable and "will fall of its own weight."

Michael Winship: So senator, let me start off just by asking you, we're at a conference that marks the 40th anniversary of Watergate. Where were you when the scandal unfolded, what were you up to?

Russ Feingold: I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and during both summers of Watergate I was working in the Capitol Square. So we would come home from work, in the summer especially, and we'd sit in front of our beat up old couch and get a couple of beers out and watch this thing unfold with absolute fascination. On the day when Nixon resigned we all went down to State Street, to what had to be one of the greatest parties I've ever been at in my life. It was in the afternoon and there was enormous celebration that this scandal that had come to the fruition of actually forcing the president to resign. So I was a very happy undergraduate at my alma mater.

Michael Winship: I was in Lafayette Square, actually. That was an amazing - very similar, I think. But it was a great impetus for campaign finance reform at the time. So much happened that seemed to be culminating with McCain-Feingold. What happened?

Russ Feingold: Well, it's really very simple. It's not like everything wasn't going in the right direction. We had closed the soft money loophole, the 527s had been reined in by the Federal Elections Commission after the 2004 election. People were turning in Howard Dean's campaign, my Senate campaign, the president's campaign, to small dollar internet contributions without transactional conversations. All of it was moving in the right direction, with the hope that we would start moving toward serious talk about public financing more at the national level. Then the Supreme Court, on a five to four vote, decided to destroy the whole edifice of campaign finance reform in what I consider to be a lawless, almost absurd decision that was not required in any way by the facts of the case. That's what opened the spigot, and that's why we are where we are today.

Michael Winship: So how do we fight back against Citizens United? What do you tell people that they can do to overturn it?

Russ Feingold: There are many people working to change this. I founded a group called Progressives United. Our agenda is to make it clear to people that we can overturn this decision. The Court could change its mind, but more likely, President Obama hopefully will have an appointment or two and this can be overruled. But in the meantime, we can pass disclosure laws. You know, eight to one, the same Court in Citizens United said of course there should be disclosure, but the Republicans won't vote for it. So getting that through Congress, passing disclosure at the state level, as in California. They're very close to it. Working on public financing models, as in New York. The City of New York has one of the best public financing systems in the country. We want Governor Cuomo to take it up a notch and to pass statewide public financing now. So it's a synergy between what happens in the court, what happens in Congress, what happens in the state legislatures, and what the public can do to demand that specific issues not reflect the dominance of big money. For example, demanding that there be accountability for what people did on Wall Street, making the SEC require companies to disclose what they do with political funding. So there are many, many good projects going on, and we just need to make it clear to the public that this is a sea change. This isn't the same old, same old. Their dollars that they use to buy a gallon of gas or a tube of toothpaste have never before been able to be used for campaigns, and now they are. That is a big change.

Michael Winship: I saw an analysis yesterday analyzing data from the Federal Election Commission, saying that in the 2012 election it cost a senator, or a challenger, more than - what was it, $10 million on average to hold onto or win a seat, and more than a million and a half for a seat in the House of Representatives. How can democracy survive that kind of money?

Russ Feingold: Well, it will fall of its own weight. The system is becoming so corrupted with unlimited undisclosed conversations about huge contributions that have never been seen before that I believe that there will be a huge scandal. I actually think the scandal is occurring. It just needs to be uncovered. I don't think the system is sustainable, for either candidates or the interests that are being hit up for it. You know, it's like a form of blackmail. When politicians or their agents call up companies and rich people and say, "We want you to give this money," what are they - you know, they're being basically blackmailed into giving this kind of contributions. So I think this will be changed, and I think one of the elements of change will be people and corporations and wealthy people saying, "You know, we're not comfortable having to do this."

Michael Winship: It's been ten years since the Iraq War. You were one of the voices against that war, you were the sole vote against the Patriot Act. If you look at the situation now, with drone warfare and what's going on, what are your thoughts about that?

Russ Feingold: My thought is that it appears that things are just waking up, that people are finally - unfortunately, it took 11 years. In fact, I wrote a book that included comments about this called While America Sleeps, where there was a failure to continue the popular concern about what happened in the Patriot Act and President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. I think what we're seeing with Rand Paul and Ron Wyden and others starting to talk about this across party lines, with conservatives as well as liberals challenging it, I think there may be an opportunity for an era to challenge Dick Cheney's view of the Constitution, which is a very flawed view.

Michael Winship: And I just wanted to ask you quickly about filibuster reform. That's something that you've been very outspoken about.

Russ Feingold: Yes. Look, we need to make some changes to this filibuster. The changes that were made were inadequate, they were window dressing - that were made by Harry Reid and the Democrats in the Senate. They wanted to do more. What you can do here is, at a minimum, require people to actually talk when they do a filibuster. You know, the other day, that was a real filibuster by Rand Paul, but there was a silent filibuster killing a perfectly good candidate for judge. There should have to be some rules with respect to that, and I think that's something to fight for.

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