Despite all the talk about campaign finance reform, there is very little that has been and is done. The laws that have been enacted have left loopholes for “soft money” and special interest groups. Elected and hoping-to-be-elected politicians play musical contribution checks as they donate money to each other, and lobbyists funnel money to the officials they think they can most easily influence. The Supreme Court has ruled that this kind of financing of campaigns is protected by the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. In my opinion, the current system of campaign finance is terribly undemocratic.
I agree that contributing whatever you want to a candidate is Free Speech. But I think it needs to be limited. If this sounds like I’m arguing against myself, ask yourself what the difference is between the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and the definition of democracy: rule of the people (or the majority). Our democracy could, theoretically, vote to outlaw certain kinds of speech (which in fact we have, or at least acquiesced to the limitations imposed by the Supreme Court such as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater). Moreover, the standard list of freedoms we enjoy could, again theoretically, exist under any other form of government that chose to allow them.
Campaigns in this country are funded and waged to garner the support of the majority in order to win an election to an office where the incumbent should represent his/her constituents. But where most of the funds contributed to campaigns come from a very small few, the “constituency” of the elected official becomes very small indeed. Some play a “chicken-and-egg” game, saying that the contributed funds are a result of previously-observed actions and positions, rather than the positions and actions being a result of the funds. I don’t believe this; I think campaign contributions are specifically meant in most cases to buy access and influence, if not outright votes.
What can be done to ensure that the representative’s constituency is truly the people of his/her voting area? Do we force everyone to contribute the same amount to all the candidates? Well, sort of.
Public financing of political campaigns is an old idea that seems to have gathered some steam recently. Essentially, a portion of the nation’s/state’s/county’s/etc. tax revenue is set aside to fund campaigns. This is what happens when you check the box on your tax return (the money isn’t taken from your refund; it’s just allocated to the public campaign fund rather than some other expenditure).
Why is public campaign funding a good idea? It gives us all the same say in who gets elected and how they act afterward. Many observers think that the 2008 presidential race will thin as early as March 2007 when the first quarter campaign war-chest numbers are published. A candidate who might be a very good potential President but who doesn’t have the money machine at full steam may find the situation hopeless.
Another benefit is that we can influence, through our elected representatives, how much is spent on campaigns. It is estimated that the 2008 presidential campaign will cost in excess of $1 billion. You know what that means: a billion Dollars worth of radio and TV ads, more frequently and for a longer timeframe than ever before. If we control the purse-strings (and the amount is naturally limited by the constraints of an administrative budget), the campaigns will be less expensive, be forced to focus on core issues, and be less intrusive into the parts of our lives where we don’t want them. Political campaigning will, by necessity, become more of a grass-roots system that will involve and inform the electorate better.
Are there downsides? I guess we could say we don’t have the extra public money to spend on campaigns. But I think a more tied-to-the-electorate government will be a more efficient government. For example, U.S. Senators currently must raise approximately $18,000 per DAY to fund their next campaign. If they don’t have to do this, and they don’t have to have dedicated staff to help them do this, think of the savings!
Are we really denying free speech? Well, yes; in the same ways that we proscribe speech that would be characterized as slander, assault, related to national security, perjury, pornography, plagiarism, and so many others. “Free speech” that denies the popular representation that makes the Constitution what it is really weakens the same Constitution that guarantees it.
The system as now functioning is government of the wealthy, by the wealthy and for the wealthy. It’s a de facto oligarchy. It’s un-American. The “demos” need to reclaim the greatest democracy in the world. Start by checking the box on your tax return; the more viable the public finance system looks, the more likely it is to be supported. Talk about public financing with friends, family, and neighbors (it’s OK to talk politics). And finally, write to your Senator or Representative to show you’re informed and anxious about this issue.