Thursday, April 26, 2007

Campaign Finance Reform

Today's New York Times reports on the latest campaign finance reform case before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Times editorialized yesterday in favor of protecting all the current campaign finance restrictions under McCain-Feingold.

I've never blogged much about campaign finance reform because it's such a legally sticky issue- and as a law student, it's hard to touch on these topics without delving into the substantive law. Nonetheless, I'm highly motivated to blog today, not so much from a legal standpoint as from a philosophical one. Before I get any further, I want you to ask yourself why it is that big media is so gung ho about campaign finance reform- the more restrictions the better seems to be the motto of the Times and plenty of other media outlets as well.

While you ponder that, let's take a look at what the law is, on a very very very basic level. Today, we basically have a situation where campaign expenditures can not be limited, but campaign contributions can be limited. In other words, candidates are free to spend whatever money they have without limitation, but the rest of us can be limited as far as what we give to candidates. This basic rule has been set in stone by the Supreme Court since the 70's. The recent flurry of campaign finance reform (highlighted by McCain-Feingold) was an effort to close off supposed loopholes in the old system. And of course, the reformers will tell you that money in politics remains a problem and even more strict controls are needed. The problem is- from my point of view- that every single one of these campaign finance restrictions limits our basic freedom of speech and expression.

Many will make the simple argument that money is not speech, and technically, they'd be right. But at the same time, books, pamphlets, and the internet are not necessarily speech either- just like money, these are tools for speech, the tools you need to have your speech heard. If no one hears your speech, particularly your political speech, your effect on the democratic process is negligible. So, while money may not be speech, it is a tool that is absolutely necessary to circulate your political messages.

Given the fact that money is absolutely necessary, it seems odd that we've come to accept a system that allows individuals to spend millions of dollars of their own money, but restricts the amount of money you can give to a political candidate with views similar to your own. If you're Bill Gates, you can run for president without having to raise a dime, but if you're Bill Gates best friend who happens to be a politician, you can't count on Bill Gates to give you very much money. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense and seems to favor the wealthy over the poor.

Some campaign finance reformers argue for a system of purely public financing for campaigns. The problem with this sort of a system is that in institutionalizes party politics. You can't simply give money to every lunatic who wishes to run for office, so it becomes the function of government to decide which candidates can receive campaign funding. But, the problem is, providing campaign money to certain political ideologies and not to others seems to be a violation of the spirit of the First Amendment, if not a violation of the letter of the law.

Perhaps the worst form of campaign finance limitations are those placed on third parties- precisely the sort discussed by the Times and at issue before the Supreme Court. Under our current system, a great number of restrictions are placed on the ability of third parties (such as unions and corporations) to run advertisements that specifically support candidates for office within a specified time frame of an election. In my mind, this is a direct violation of the most important principles of free speech- the right to argue for political change.

Now let's go back to my question about the media supporting campaign finance reform. Think for a minute about who is not bound by campaign finance restrictions- the media. The New York Times and every other newspaper (and political commentators for that matter) is free to editorialize and support any and all candidates they like, with no restrictions. This is the real result of campaign finance reform- the media is free and political candidates for office are restricted in their abilities to respond to the media. And this is why I feel so strongly about the issue- for all the talk about money and corruption and politics, most campaign finance reforms tend to solidify those already in power- incumbents, big media, and the party elites.


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