Campaign finance reform, part one: Local lawmakers debate campaign contribution limits
- Supreme Court rolls back campaign spending limits
In campaign finance ruling, Supreme Court hands a vicotry to the First Amendment
Early today, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to ease restrictions on campaign spending.
The decision in Citizens United v. FEC (08-205) has gifted “big businesses, unions and nonprofits [with] more power to spend freely in federal elections.” According to CNN’s Bill Mears, this “major turnaround” will undermine the government’s efforts regulate the ability of corporations and other powerful organizations to influence the American political process.
The case was first brought to the court after a documentary on Hillary Clinton was prevented from airing during the 2008 primary election season. The court’s conservative majority voted five to four in favor of Citizens United, overhauling campaign finance laws in the process.
One serious problem with this decision is that it has now opened doors for companies like Exxon Mobil to run campaign ads and attack or support ads by using money from their massive treasuries. Worse still, is that this decision opens the door for a future court decision to overturn one hundred years of precedent by allowing these organizations to donate money directly to political campaigns.
At issue here is a concept derived from an older Supreme Court case, Buckley v. Valeo, wherein the court ruled that influencing politics with money is a form of constitutionally protected free speech.
Does money really equal free speech? The courts think so. As a result, the American public, it seems, has been driven further away from its government, allowing for special interests, corporations, lobbyists, and other familiar bedfellows to play a greater role in the policymaking process.
In “An American Aristocracy: How High Campaign Spending is Bad for Democracy,” an article published in the book, Voice of the Future, this reporter argues that high campaign spending is driving a wedge between the upper class and the rest of America. In a trend that runs contradictory to the nature of America’s democratic principles, the current system of campaign finance seems to be creating an American aristocracy, because the costs of political activities are sky rocketing. Only special interests, corporations, and well organized machines have the resources to manipulate politics in this kind of environment.
Without campaign finance reform, says Judith Gorman, with the Progressive, “this democracy is in grave danger of becoming a commercial oligarchy, serving only a constituency of wealthy campaign contributors.”
Ralph Parker, a political science graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, supports campaign finance reform 100%. He understands that the amount of money required to run for office not only diminishes the role of the public, but it makes running for office more difficult for candidates too. “Candidates need a level playing field.”
While Parker thinks there is nothing wrong with 5, 10, or 100 dollar donations from individuals, he thinks special interests, PACs, and corporations should be taken out of the process all together. “ They influence politics in a negative way,” says Parker. “Special interest groups shouldn’t be elected to public office, politicians should be elected to public office.”
His sentiment echoes that of Bernard Shaw. In 1997, Shaw wrote an article for CNN asking if money was equal to free speech.
Shaw suggests that everyone has an equal right to determine who is elected to govern by voting. This idea, he says, is at the core of American democracy. However, it has taken hundreds of years to close the gap between this vision of the founding fathers and reality. Women and African Americans all struggled long and hard to secure this right for themselves.
Today, however, the electoral system remains unfair. Instead of discriminating against women and African Americans, the system discriminates against people without large sums of money. And this is the case despite the 24th Amendment outlawing poll taxes, something that was supposed to help the poor and African Americans.
John Bonifaz of the National Voting Rights Institute told CNN, “We can’t have those who have access to large sums of wealth [drown] out every one else’s [right to free] speech.”
However, the ruling handed down by the court today has the opposite intention. Worse still, is that it could spread to the states.
Twenty-two states have similar bans on corporate interference in the political process, but the Citizens United decision could possibly be used to undermine those laws as well.
This could be a major blow to lawmakers in Missouri, where Democrats have been trying to reinstate campaign finance laws to fight political corruption. Buchan County Recorder of Deeds, and former Missouri House Representative Ed Wildberger, believes there’s no question about it, “we need to restore limits… period.”
Wildberger, who fought to protect cost of living raises for government officials last spring, already thinks that politics is becoming “a rich man’s game.” He argued then that “people interested in running for the Legislature” may find the salaries too low for them to live on. And since people can’t afford to become politicians without wealth Wildberger thinks that weak finance laws are only encouraging “sell outs” and independently wealthy individuals to run for office.
Like Parker, Wildberger doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with small amounts of money coming from large groups of individuals. But, there is a serious problem, when people like Rex Sinquefield, a wealthy conservative businessman heavily involved in Missouri politics, can funnel their money through hundreds of political action committees, to “buy votes” on major political issues, such as campaign finance reform and school vouchers.
The removal of campaign finance restrictions at the federal, state and local levels will only make this problem worse.
John Waltz, a progressive Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Kentucky’s fourth district, believes it’s time to restore the public’s control of the government:
For far too long our representatives in government have set the needs of voters aside because of the pay to play campaign finance system currently in place. We can put the power of government back in the hands of citizens with comprehensive campaign finance reform and creating a public finance system.
As your Congressman, I will fight for the Fair Elections Now Act, which will require a Congressional candidate to raise $50,000 via a limit of $100 maximum donations and a minimum of 1500 donors within the candidate’s state for an exchange of $900,000 in public financing. This will finally put our government back in the hands of Americans and out of the hands of the special interest lobbyists who have a stranglehold on Washington D.C.
Some progressives may not believe this to be a strong enough piece of legislation.
Matthew Rothschild, with the Progressive, believes “the only real solution to the problem of money in politics is full public financing.” He believes this would remove corruption and class bias from the political and electoral systems. “And,” he argues, “it would enable a more diverse group of candidates to run,” because current laws essentially require politicians “to be independently wealthy,” or be willing to sell their souls.
The opinions of the court, however, are too strong. Modifications in campaign finance laws almost require input from the court.
Proposals like the Fair Elections Now Act could suffer the same fate as the portions of McCain-Feingold struck down in the decision earlier today.
That’s why Jon Euchner, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Missouri Western State University, in St. Joseph, Missouri, believes a constitutional amendment is necessary to achieve true campaign finance reform. Euchner suggests that such an amendment would outlaw private money from public elections, wherein individuals seek public office. And since the states are in a similar situation, such an amendment could include provisions outlawing the private financing of elections there too.
Ultimately, the court’s belief that money equals free speech implies that one individual or group’s free speech is more valuable than another’s. However, corporations and special interest groups don’t vote. Neither do foreign nationals for that matter. How is it that foreign nationals don’t have the right to contribute to public campaigns, yet powerful groups do?
When it comes down to it, the individuals comprising an organization do have the right to be involved in the political process. The organization itself should not be allowed to influence elections. Sincere campaign finance limits will level the playing field and make the system more democratic.
If the court believes that the American public has the right to make its own decisions by having access to the campaign propaganda promoted by powerful organizations, perhaps the court should remember the best way to make an informed decision is to have access to all of the facts. That means that the public needs greater access to ideas and candidates (including third party candidates) that don’t receive massive amounts of funding from special interests.
But, it seems now that the only way to realize this goal, will be to amend the constitution.
For more info: Fair Elections Now, Public Campaign.