Monday, July 09, 2007

Campaign finance

Dave got started on this, having posted last week on the Supreme Court's striking down certain provisions in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law pertaining to corporate-funded "issue ads". The court basically ruled that banning of "issue ads" in the weeks prior to an election violated the First Amendment free-speech guarantees. This once again brings up the question of how much wealthy donors should be allowed to dominate the electoral process. Dave pointed me towards this New York Times Magazine article in which author Jeffrey Rosen seems to pick up where we left off. Rosen's opening concerns are much the same as mine: "How can the principle of one man, one vote be honored when the accumulation of dollars translates so readily into the accumulation of political influence? If all citizens enjoy the equal right to participate in politics with their wallets, is it possible to hold a fair election?"

Comprehensive limits on election spending have been thwarted by the Buckley v. Valeo decision in the 70's that declared election spending to be a form of free speech. Since that time, groups advocating campaign finance reform have resorted to a number of piecemeal measures. The intent of McCain-Feingold was to control the amount of unregulated "soft money" that corporations and other wealthy donors could contribute directly to political parties, and limit the influence of "issue ads" funded by deep-pocketed groups. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down the issue-ad prohibition, there is a good possibility that the soft-money restrictions may be next to go, perhaps followed by efforts to remove spending restrictions altogether. Candidates have a right to spend as much of their own money as they want on their campaigns, the argument goes, why should those without access to a personal fortune be handicapped?

Rosen provides a glimpse of what the future could look like without campaign finance regulations:

In some ways, it would look a lot like American politics before the 1970s. Corporations would give freely to state and national parties. The effects of wealth would once more be magnified as the size of donations ballooned. But not all of the effects of radical deregulation would be negative. Mega-rich candidates would face better-financed rivals and thus inspire less fear. And, having discovered the virtues of Internet fund-raising, candidates are unlikely to ignore small donors, as they did in the ’90s.

The most significant result of a decision to strike down virtually all campaign-finance regulations would be to dash reformers’ hopes for more comprehensive reform — hope, that is, for the sort of policies that proponents of equal access in politics believe would actually work. In Belgium, for example, parties receive 85 percent of their revenue from the government, and spending is strictly restricted during the three months before an election. Such an approach, however, would be hard to reconcile with Americans’ dislike of subsidizing politicians — or with our First Amendment tradition, whether interpreted by the Warren Court or the Roberts Court.

Americans have conflicting attitudes when it comes to political spending. On the one hand, our sense of fairness demands that our politicians be responsive to the needs and desires of all Americans, and we dislike the undue influence that deep-pocketed contributors, including corporations and unions, can exert on our elected representatives. On the other hand, we also feel that anybody who earns their money fair and square has a right to spend it as they see fit. In this view, buying a politician is seen as no different from buying a yacht.

What I'd like to see is a system of campaign financing similar to the Belgian model, with elections funded primarily from federal sources (yup, that's taxes) and restrictions in the weeks leading up to election day. Such an approach may be desirable but is probably not realistic. The Constitutional concerns involved would likely require an amendment to pass. The restrictions on private funding would seem unfair to many, including a lot of folks who aren't rich. The American people have also been loath to fund the electoral process, although my feelings on that are if the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for funding elections, then we will get the politicians we deserve.

At the same time, I can't endorse removing nearly all restrictions and requiring full disclosure, the approach Dave tends to favor. This would cause campaign spending to spiral far beyond the levels we see now. This would force aspiring office-holders without a personal fortune to seek wealthy backers even more than they need to now, which I think would tend to discourage, rather than encourage, potential candidates who lack money. Those who would seek office anyway would constantly be faced with charges of "selling out" to those who bankrolled their campaigns. Also, although I don't have time to research it right now, my gut tells me that the list of deep-pocketed contributors would be far longer on the right than it would be on the left.

One approach that could hold down the costs of campaigning that might not raise so many Constitutional questions would be to require media outlets, particularly TV and radio, to provide free ad time to qualified candidates. The lion's share of campaign spending is used on advertising. The problem here would be to determine a "qualified candidate". There would have to be a formula in place to distinguish serious candidates from cranks standing in the courthouse square with a sandwich board, or with a cheap Internet site. But there needs to be a way to grant eligibility to serious independent candidates, as well as to minor parties such as the Greens and Libertarians who have demonstrated their ability to organize a national following.