We Need Campaign Finance Reform

imagesThe U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), has given wealthy donors the carte blanche right to buy an election by effectively eliminating meaningful limits on campaign contributions. The ruling builds on the Citizens United ruling, which opened the door to unlimited fundraising and spending by super PAC’s and dark money nonprofits. Following the rise of television and social media after World War II, the cost of running a political campaign increased dramatically.

In the 1956 elections, total campaign spending was $155 million; however, the total price tag for the 2012 elections was $7 billion. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney rejected public financing; thus, it was the most amount of money ever spent during an election cycle in U.S. history.

America has always wrestled with how best to prevent the undue influence of money in the political process. The first serious reforms came in the wake of the Watergate scandal. When President Nixon’s illegal fundraising operation came to light, Common Cause, one of the staunchest advocates of campaign finance reform, was instrumental in the passage of the 1974 landmark campaign finance reform legislation. The legislation tightened reporting requirements for donors, created a system to publicly finance presidential campaigns, and set limits to contributions and campaign spending. In addition, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) was established to enforce these laws.

In Buckley vs Valeo (1975), the U.S Supreme Court maintained that restrictions on individual contributions to political campaigns and candidates did not violate the First Amendment- the right to free speech- since the limitations enhanced the “integrity of our system of representative democracy by guarding against the risk of unscrupulous practices.” However, the court decided that limitations on expenditures by candidates from their own personal or family resources, and the limitation on total campaign expenditure did violate the First Amendment. By equating money with free speech, the ruling constituted a major obstacle to campaign finance reform because it made it increasingly difficult to uphold any campaign finance regulation.

Moreover, the court erroneously downplayed the value of independent spending by corporations and unions as well as the risk of quid pro quo corruption. Ultimately, the decision created a loophole that allowed parties to accept large amounts of unregulated “soft money” to cover party expenses. As a result, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin introduced two key provisions to close the loophole and end the corrupting influence of money in politics. First, the bill banned “issue advertising” on television 60 days before a general election and 30 days before a primary. Second, it limited “soft money” contributions from corporations.

Soon afterwards, Andrew Lewis, a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute, argued that a political contribution is “de facto the publication of your ideas and is similar to hiring a speaker or commissioning an author,” and the fundamental purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the right of citizens to express their ideas. Then he added: “ the only proper limits on contributions are those set by your willingness to employ your money for this purpose.” He insists that all forms of advertising are crucial for communicating your ideas, and the McCain-Feingold bill violates free speech by prohibiting pre-election issue advertising. However, the majority of Americans do not have the financial flexibility to donate large sums of money, and their lack of representation will disallow the expression of their ideas.

As if the ruling wasn’t damaging enough to American democracy, the Citizens United ruling (2010) loosened the reins –even further-on wealthy donors by striking down all corporate and union spending limits on independent campaigns. The court made the legal argument that corporations and unions are people and giving money to independent campaigns is part of a person’s first amendment right. Therefore, any limitations on campaign donations will curtail their first amendment rights, and no U.S. government can do that. The court had, however, upheld the $2600 -$5200 if voting in the primary and general election- cap to a single candidate and overall two –year limit of $48,600 to a single party committee.

However, thanks to the McCutcheon ruling, a small handful of wealthy donors who were previously constrained by the aggregate contribution cap of $123,200 per election cycle can now donate as much as $3.6 million among candidates and committees. Shaun McCutcheon is a Republican businessman who was surprised to learn that the aggregate federal contribution prevented him from giving money to 12 additional candidates. He stated that he simply wished to exercise his First Amendment right. However, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, only 3000 Americans reached the limit that he is challenging; therefore, most Americans cannot afford that much “free speech”.

In spite of the court’s decision to equate free speech with the use of money, others have ripped apart the court’s money-equals-free speech logic. In her article, Don Campbell states that the difference between free and bought – and – paid – for speech, is the difference between speaking and being listened to. Wealthy individuals are effectively telling us: “Don’t speak. Just Listen.”

Unfortunately, the five conservative judges who ruled in favor of overturning 40 years of campaign finance laws must assume that Americans cannot see the relationship between corruption, big money, and politics. In fact, 80 percent of Americans have already disapproved of the decision handed down in Citizens United. However, Chief Justice Roberts has routinely dismissed public concern. In fact, in the key passage in the McCutcheon ruling Chief Justice Roberts writes:

It is not an acceptable governmental objective to level the playing field, or to equalize the financial resources of candidates; rather congress may target quid pro quo corruption. Furthermore, spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner influence over or access to elected officials or political parties.

Jeffery Toobin , a lawyer and staff writer for the New Yorker, states that Roberts is defining quid pro quo corruption as outright bribery, and that the First Amendment protects anything short of bribery, and “ even if congress was inclined to pass campaign-finance laws, you have a Supreme Court that says they can’t do it.” He suggests that the only alternative is to amend the constitution. If it isn’t the Court’s job to level the playing field, then it’s certainly not their job to skew the playing field in favor of the wealthy. In fact, they seem unconcerned that the average American’s voice will be drowned out by the likes of the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson.

Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has added her voice to the growing chorus of concern over the ruling. She warns that it will limit the number of people involved in the political process- to mostly billionaires and millionaires. We have the devastating aftermath of Citizens United in the 2012 election cycle, when only 1219 donors were responsible for giving $155 million to federal races. However, without a cap the amount would have been 50 percent more than Obama md Romney received from small donors combined.

Should we be surprised that the court’s majority is so out of touch with reality? After all, super PAC’s, or independent expenditure committees, were the product of a misguided Supreme Court majority in the Citizens United ruling that understated the value of super PAC’s since they were prohibited from coordinating directly with candidates or political parties. Now the court majority appears to reverse course by finally acknowledging that Super PAC’s are at least somewhat valuable to a candidate; Chief Justice Roberts estimates that at least 5 % of independent expenditure is valuable to a candidate. If we accept his estimate, surely some level of regulation is warranted. For instance, in 2012 James Simons, a hedge fund manager, donated $5 million to Obama’s Super PAC, Priorities USA; 5% amounts to $250,000. Furthermore, 5 % of Sheldon Adelson’s $30 million contribution to Mitt Romney’s super PAC Restore Our Future, amounts to $1.5 million. Surely, their “generosity” raises the risk for quid pro quo corruption by ensuring a return on their investment.

Indeed, caps on contributions are not a “panacea” for eliminating all corruption in campaign finance; however, effective and properly enforced regulations are much better than no regulations. For instance, when it came to campaign finance regulations -prior to the McCutcheon v. FEC – the Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, indicated that the U.S. was one of the relatively better performers among a group of 51 countries. The reason for their better performance was due to lower caps on donations to parties and candidates, the ban on direct corporate contributions to parties and candidates, and a statutory public disclosure of party finances. The court certainly took another “wrong” step in the latest campaign finance ruling.

Ironically, it was Chief Justice G. Roberts who said that “ there is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” while the U.S. Supreme Court was refusing to uphold the integrity of our system of democracy by ensuring equal participation in the electoral process. Instead, the court embarked on a relentless mission to deregulate political campaigns that has created a system of legalized corruption. Roberts fails to understand that the influence of big money may dissuade participation of millions of potential voters in the electoral process because any effort to voice their issues was vaporized by the court.

The court has often said “ that democracy cannot work unless the people have faith in those who govern. How can we have faith in the Supreme Court, when it is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society, in which a handful of millionaires and billionaires will control the political process?Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the dissenting voices, asserted that : “money doesn’t just talk. It also eventually forces the public to understand that they don’t matter much.” A government that is truly of, by and for the people is nonexistent if silences the majority of its people. We can only restore our democracy with meaningful campaign finance reform.



One Comment to “We Need Campaign Finance Reform”

  1. What was said in the conclusion of this article really hit it home for me. Although I myself am not a supporter of politics, I do feel that campaign finance reform is certainly something that is needed. It seems that many politicians, through super PACs and contributions from wealthy individuals, are making use of current limited regulation of campaign finance to further their political endorsements. Unfortunately for many, they do not have enough personal funds to “make a difference” in regard to supporting the candidate that they prefer. When it comes to constitutional law and modern application, it is often difficult to discern what is considered legal on that basis alone. I feel that it takes much more than considering principle, that, as stated, there must be legitimate reforms to current regulation of campaign contribution. Indeed, we can try to have faith in those who govern, but when such ones have engaged in questionable activity with regard to large contributions and political clout, it is hard to do so. I personally don’t see any clear or coherent solution in the foreseeable future.

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