September 8, 2003, 12:30 P.M.
As I write this, the United States Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. McCain-Feingold, you will recall, seeks to limit certain types of large contributions to political campaigns. The idea is that large contributors to political campaigns expect, and receive, special “considerations” from their candidates once they are elected. Many such large contributors even hedge their bets by backing candidates from opposite parties in the same election.
Power and influence are the key to our current system of financing political campaigns. The current administration’s ties to big business (and big money) has resulted in government action that favors big business at the expense of the environment, the poor, the elderly and consumers, to name a few.
McCain-Feingold is not a panacea: it is a start. Its critics say that the current system does not lead to “corruption or the appearance of corruption,” and therefore the law is an unconstitutional attack on free speech. The “corruption or appearance of corruption” language was chosen because the U.S. Supreme Court has said in the past that these were legitimate reasons for the Court to intervene in the campaign finance reform debate.
Senator John McCain, one of the bill’s sponsors, points out that without some form of campaign finance reform it is the large majority of the population that loses its voice. While opponents may argue that restrictions on large contributions limit the free speech of corporate and wealthy citizens. The net effect of failing to limit large donations is to dilute and minimize the voice of those who cannot afford to get the attention of candidates with their money. It is naïve to suggest that one-man-one-vote can overcome the marketing, influence and exposure that big money can buy in a modern campaign.
The Supreme Court will be limited in its ability to address the campaign finance reform bill because the court can only comment and ultimately rule on whether or not the bill unconstitutionally limits the rights of campaign contributors by limiting the amount of money they can put into the system. Unfortunately, the court cannot, in the current case, rule on the effect of big money contributions on the speech rights of the rest of us. The court isn’t being asked to balance the rights of the moneyed elite against the effect on the un-moneyed majority and that’s what needs to happen. In fact, that is the larger discussion that is at the heart of the campaign finance reform debate because the current process demands that candidates pander to large contributors because they know that it takes big bucks to get elected. The best messages are often left on the side of the road because without money, there is no way to get the message out.
We think that it is time to limit what can be spent on a candidate's behalf in an election campaign. Modern politicians spend inordinate amounts of their time raising money for their next election. Placing the limit on what the candidate can spend, rather than on what individuals and groups can contribute, will level the playing field, and will force candidates to communicate more directly with the entire electorate, rather than pre-selected regional television markets. This will have the added benefit of forcing voters to think about their choices, to become informed, and to vote on issues rather than on sound bites and slick television ads.
The spending limits could be phased in based on primary and general elections, and soft money would have to be included. In other words, if Bechtel wants to produce ads for, say, George W. Bush, his spending limit would be “charged” with the cost of the ad campaign. This does not limit the ability of corporations or individuals to spend their money on campaigns, it just limits the ability of the candidate to collect it, and in effect, makes it impossible to buy an election.