Campaign Finance Reform

Posted Nov. 06, 2008, at 5:05 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:26 a.m.

The 2008 presidential election has provided more evidence of the need to reconsider campaign finance rules. This presidential campaign is expected to cost $1.6 billion; including congressional races, the election total is $5.6 billion. That’s a lot of money, bringing with it a lot of expectations on the part of big donors.

A recent report by the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan group affiliated with George Washington University, argues that any new campaign finance reform effort ought to first consider a goal. Most earlier reforms were aimed at eliminating corruption. “Rather than focus on corruption prevention, research and policy should move to such positive goals as increasing electoral competition, candidate emergence and promoting equality through small donors and volunteers,” the report concludes.

Encouraging more candidates can be achieved in ballot access reforms, rather than financial restrictions.

Campaign finance reform has been a long incremental process, and was not settled by the landmark Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — better known as McCain-Feingold — of 2002. The first serious steps came in the wake of Watergate; revelations that the Nixon re-election team had a safe with $1 million in cash to be used for dirty tricks made the case. In 1974 federal law was amended to limit donations from labor unions and corporations, and capped donations from individuals. Public financing for federal candidates was also launched in the post-Nixon years.

But a setback came in a 1976 Supreme Court decision that established that donating money was an act of free speech, and so could not be limited without good reason. Some would counter that such speech has grown very pricey, and that the “one citizen, one vote” concept is skewed by the size of the check some citizens can write.

McCain-Feingold further pushed the cause of reform. Its key provisions were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003, but the ruling came in a 5-4 vote, suggesting the new law was on shaky constitutional ground. Meanwhile, the need for further reform was seen in the 2004 presidential election, as third-party groups exploited a loophole in McCain-Feingold to attack a candidate as long as they did not endorse his opponent. This was beginning of “Swift Boat” politics.

This year, more evidence of the need for reform is seen in the colossal amount of money raised by Sen. Obama — some $600 million — and his refusal to accept the limits that come with public financing. Sen. Obama is the first presidential candidate to do so since public financing was created in 1976. His supporters argue that the same factors that bring 100,000 people to one of his rallies motivate people to donate to his campaign. Supporters also note that a large portion of Sen. Obama’s contributions come in $25, $50 and $100 increments, amounts that do not give the donor much clout.

But collectively, the money is a huge advantage.

In 2007, the conservative Supreme Court further weakened McCain-Feingold restrictions. If the court makeup remains the same, more weakening is likely. That is a move in the wrong direction.

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