Campaign Finance Reform
Campaign Finance Reform has become a major political issue in the twenty-first century. The issue of money in politics is not a new issue. Concerns about the role of money in politics have their origins in the Progressive Era. However, the twenty-first century made Campaign Finance Reform a major political issue across the United States. On March 27, 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. However, much of that law was weakened by the Citizens United vs FEC decision decided eight years later. The Supreme Court controversially by a vote of 5-4 determined that money is a form of speech. Overturning Citizens United became a big part of President Obama’s agenda and later Secretary Hillary Clinton’s platform as nominees for President in 2012 and 2016. Support and opposition for Campaign Finance Reform cannot be said to be a Democratic/Republican issue.
Proponents of campaign finance reform offer many compelling arguments in favor of campaign finance reform. Talmon J. Smith, an Arthur Carter associate and a fellow at NYU’s Fellow at the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy argues that not implementing campaign finance reform is akin to the so called “white primaries” that existed in the pre-Civil Rights South where only white voters were allowed to participate. Smith writes : “Today, the democratic process is no longer skewed by white primaries. Instead, before general elections, before even primary voting begins, there is a fundraising primary that takes place among the donor class and wielders of corporate PACs, in which they determine those who will be given the lionshare of campaign funds. When the average price of winning or holding on to a six-year term in the U.S. Senate averages $10,476,451, as in the 2012 election cycle, these ‘first-round’ pick candidates, backed by the donor class, prove immensely hard to beat. In 2014 Congress had an 11 percent approval rating but a 96 percent incumbent reelection rate.” Professor Smith describes a paradox in American voters. American voters have contended they are dissatisfied with Congress, yet Congress overwhelmingly is re-elected every two years. The question to ask is how much is that to with the role of money in campaign politics and thus our tendency to see more ads for an incumbent Congressman than his challenger, who most of the time would be lacking the funds necessary. But our tendency to re-elect our Congressmen may not be related to money at all. One could easily conclude that voters see their neighbors in other districts and states’ Congressmen as the problem but not their own. Smith makes other arguments for Campaign Finance Reform. “At this juncture in the 2016 presidential election, out of the estimated 120 million households in the United States just 158 families have provided about half of the money so far. 138 of them support Republican candidates. And as the New York Times details, the heads of these households are “overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male, in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women, and by black and brown voters.” That rising ‘nation-remaking’ political coalition is often contrasted with lower-to-middle income whites in electoral politics, but on campaign finance these voter blocs stand in solidarity.” Smith raises the legitimate concern of too much money and influence on election being in the hands of a select few. It was similar concerns that inspired reformers to support what became the seventeenth amendment of the United States, the direct election of U.S. Senators over a century ago.
However, it is not only progressives like Talmon Smith who argue in favor of campaign finance reform. Conservatives have offered support for campaign finance reform as well. The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, better known to the public as McCain-Feingold was championed by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona whom two years earlier had ran for his party’s nomination and six years later was his party’s nominee for President. Richard W. Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s law school outlined a conservative case for campaign finance reform. Painter argued in a 2016 New York Times op-ed that conservatives should support campaign finance reform, Painter argues that big money in politics encourages big government and politicians being overly dependent on lobbyists, the latter of which is a bipartisan concern of big money in politics. . This is a valid argument. Politicians being dependent on large contributors do arguably make them decide to lean more in a big donor’s interests rather than the interest of their whole constituency when a vote comes up. Professor Painter also quotes Barry Goldwater, a prominent conservative and the 1964 Republican nominee for President as writing in his 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative ““In order to achieve the widest possible distribution of political power, financial contributions to political campaigns should be made by individuals and individuals alone. I see no reason for labor unions — or corporations — to participate in politics.” Senator Goldwater wrote this during organized labor’s zenith of political power in the United States and thus limits on organized labor’s ability to contribute to political campaigns appealed to Goldwater but Goldwater did cite corporations as well. Goldwater would definitely be at odds with the Roberts court who ruled that money equals speech in the Citizens United decision.
However, not all progressives share Talmon Smith’s beliefs on Campaign Finance Reform. The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 and supported the Citizens United decision of 2010. The ACLU surprisingly takes the same position as the conservative majority that ruled in favor of Citizens United. They write that “Any rule that requires the government to determine what political speech is legitimate and how much political speech is appropriate is difficult to reconcile with the First Amendment. Our system of free expression is built on the premise that the people get to decide what speech they want to hear; it is not the role of the government to make that decision for them.” It is a reasonable contention that the government should not be in charge of determining what type of speech is legitimate and which is not. However, the question that again comes up in the ACLU’s argument is about money being speech. The Roberts Court majority by a slim margin ruled that money is in fact a form of speech.
John O. McGinnis, a George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University outlines the conservative case against campaign finance reform. McGinnis acknowledges that the absence of Campaign Finance Reform will lead to some citizens having more influence than others but McGinnis notes that the first amendment of the United States guarantees freedom not equality. “But the 1st Amendment guarantees freedom, not equality. Rights are exercised to radically unequal degrees, and the right to speech is no exception. Some people are wealthy and can push their views with their money. Others work for the media or academia and can advance their opinions disproportionately in those settings. Still others command extra attention through celebrity. Most citizens have none of these advantages, but sometimes they join together to amplify their influence. In a free society, what law could succeed in purging elections of the unequal influences of the celebrated, the well-connected or the wealthy? Restricting one group would just magnify the influence of others.” Professor McGinnis makes a legitimate argument that the first amendment is about freedom rather than equality and that influence can spread in more ways than mere money. However, as Professor Smith argued in his article, there is something troubling about 158 out of 120 million American households contributing over half of the money in the past presidential election. So, while Professor McGinnis is theoretically correct that influence is more than just money and that groups can ban together if they are unable to contribute much as individuals i.e. labor unions but money does mean influence in American politics.
In conclusion, the United States of America does need campaign finance reform. The now precedent that money equals speech set by the Roberts Court is a contentious point in American politics. Conservatives like Professor McGinnis, who argue that the first amendment is not about equality but rather about freedom are correct, but the American political system is arguably in danger of becoming an oligarchy if a handful of wealthy donors disproportionally influence our elections. Conservatives like Professor McGinnis who attempt to accuse progressives of using Campaign Finance Reform as a vehicle of frustration over electoral defeats are mistaken too. One wonders how conservatives like Professor McGinnis would feel if labor unions still had the power they once held. When Barry Goldwater wrote in favor of Campaign Finance Reform in the early 1960’s, he specifically cited labor unions as why contributions should be limited to individuals and not labor unions or corporations. Perhaps Goldwater was a bit naïve about the role of labor and corporations in politics because both have vested interests in political decisions made by officials. Mitt Romney was famously mocked for saying “Corporations are people too, my friend.” Governor Romney may have had a point, corporations are in fact made up of people, but what he gets wrong is that corporations are not people in the sense that individuals are, a corporation does not vote for a candidate as an individual would. Another troubling sign is the rise of big contributors like the Koch Brothers to politicians. When politicians become primarily beholden to big donors than their own constituency, that creates a problem in our society.
The same argument can be made for labor unions as well but labor unions unlike corporations do have more involvement from their members. A corporation can have thousands of employees and the corporate decisions involving campaigns would be made by a small board. Professor Painter of the University Minnesota states that the increasing role of money in politics could increase the government’s size which has always been a concern of conservatives. He’s correct. The government did not shrink when either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush became President and it shows no signs of shrinking under President Trump.
Perhaps the most troubling part of the increased role of big money in politics is how incumbents in Congress’ despite record high disapproval of Congress retain their seats in overwhelming numbers. It is perhaps naïve to think that money is the only factor returning these Congressmen to their seats. Donald Trump was elected President on a promise to “drain the swamp” yet voters returned the Republican majority to its majority in both houses of Congress. Big money isn’t the sole cause of this dissonance by voters, but it would be foolish to suggest it plays no role at all. Campaign Finance Reform is necessary for our Democracy being a system that everyone regardless of their socio-economic class can feel a part of.