Bill Clinton responded to the campaign finance scandals that followed his 1996 reelection campaign with the resourcefulness for which he had by that time become renowned. First, he categorically denied wrongdoing. Then he asserted that if he had made mistakes, Republicans had done so first. Finally he proclaimed that whatever he had done was for the good of the country.
Sensing that he had not been entirely persuasive in these assertions, Clinton resorted to the favorite stratagem of presidents in need of political cover: the announcement of a bipartisan commission.
In March 1997 Clinton announced that former Vice President Walter Mondale would co-chair (with Republican former Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker) an independent commission to promote campaign finance reform. To outward appearances, Mondale possessed little more to qualify him for the job than the status of an elder statesman.
Mondale, however, was in fact an expert analyst of campaign finance laws. His study of campaign finance laws predates his days as a practicing politician and extends nearly 50 years into the past.
As a third-year law student at the University of Minnesota Law School, Mondale wrote an extensive analysis of Minnesota’s then-current campaign finance law, the Minnesota Corrupt Practices Act. Mondale’s analysis was published as an anonymous note in the January 1956 issue of the Minnesota Law Review.
Mondale has never concealed his authorship of the note, though to our knowledge no one other than us has ever written about it before. Mondale donated an autographed copy for auction at a University of Minnesota Law School student fundraiser in 1979. I own the autographed copy. It is full of astute observations that belie the regime of highly regulated campaign finance that has become the law of the land with Mondale’s support.
In his student note, Mondale first observed that the two key features of Minnesota’s campaign finance statute were a fixed amount on the total expenditures that could be made by or on behalf of a candidate during primary and general elections, and public disclosure of contributrions and expenditures before and after each primary and general election campaign. Mondale criticized arbitrary financial limitations on campaign expenditures while supporting disclosure requirements.
Mondale criticized certain reasons advanced for limiting campaign expenditures. He challenged the notion, for example, that limitations encouraged men of limited means to become candidates. Mondale in any event argued that there was general agreement that the Minnesota campaign finance statute had been ineffectual.
Such statutes, according to Mondale, either resulted in feeble campaigns or evasion of the law, mostly through the establishment of purportedly independent committes that had frustrated public disclosure regulations. As a result, Mondale noted, many scholars had urged reform to achieve effective limits on campaign spending.
Mondale believed that, to be effective, such reform would require both expenditure limits set at a reasonable level and the centralization of authority for all expenditures in a candidate’s behalf in the candidate or his party. Mondale supported neither.
Mondale observed that no scientific criteria existed to determine what was a reasonable ceiling on expenditures: “If set too high, limits serve no purpose; and if too low, candidates will attempt to avoid the law. If the law is sufficiently pervasive so that such avoidance is prevented, limits set at too low a level will prevent the electoral from becoming adequately informed, and such limits may be invalidated as a violation of free speech.” You see, liberals used to care about such things.
Moreover, Mondale argued, expenditure limits were inherently arbitrary in light of advantages one candidate might have over another by virtue of incumbency and media or party support. He noted that fixed campaign expenditure limits would constantly lag behind increasing campaign costs (remember: this was published in 1956) and would not be responsive to circumstances of particular campaigns.
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