Some belated thoughts on campaign finance reform

Posted on January 25, 2010

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Last week, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to overturn certain provisions of McCain-Feingold’s campaign finance reform bill, including restrictions on corporations preventing them from paying for their own campaign ads, but leaves them unable to directly contribute to individual campaigns. The ruling is also likely to positively affect the ability of unions to pay for similar ads as well. The decision also rolls back restrictions on ads during the closing days of a campaign.

I was genuinely surprised at the level of outrage at the left over the rollbacks. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been – such a decision provides a convenient opportunity to rail against evil capitalist corporations (just not ones like GE, MSNBC or Google that conform ideologically to their standards). To hear the criticism, one would think that from now on, every single election outcome will be solely the result of corporate political ads, not like the glory days of the last twenty years when corporations couldn’t do such heinous things … or something.

There is a great deal of merit to the idea of keeping money and lobbyists to a minimum in our political process. The ideal is to keep politics as pure as possible without the corrupting influence of cash, and it’s an idea I can sign on to in theory.

Here’s the problem and the reality – the attempt of campaign finance reform to keep money out of politics has completely and utterly failed. Each campaign over the last twenty years has had progressively more and more money poured into it, culminating in Barack Obama forsaking public financing during the 2008 campaign to rake in more bucks through private means. And to think that corporations, unions, or other interested parties haven’t been able to fund campaigns they agree with is naive – the money has simply been shuffled around through an increasingly labyrinthine network of 527s, 501(c)s, hard money, soft money, and other creations with the end result of a murky financial mess that makes cash-for-campaigning a much easier proposition.

And to be sure, there are First Amendment issues with curtailing political ads and the money that pays for them. Free speech doesn’t apply just to individuals, but groups of individuals as well. Though there is a valid concern with “rich speech” drowning out “not-as-rich speech”, the solution isn’t to scale back speech, but in transparency and making the donors and their donations open to the public.

I agree with many on the right and the left that money can undoubtedly serve a destructive purpose in politics. It can also be a vehicle of support for a message that groups want to disseminate or for a candidate that groups believe in. Scaling back McCain-Feingold isn’t the big wet smooch to corporate America that many on the left think it is – it’s simply a nod to the First Amendment and an acknowledgement that you can’t curtail speech to preserve its political purity.

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Posted in: News, Politics