It’s been said that money is the mother’s milk of American politics. Congressional incumbents spend about a third of their time chasing after it in never-ending campaigns for reelection. Interest groups contribute it in ever-increasing sums to politicians as an investment in government policy, or at least as a cost of doing business. Political consultants and the broadcast media collect it by the hundreds of millions every two years, thanks to the epic, televised spectacle we call the modern campaign.
Difficult though it may be to imagine American politics unconstrained by big money in elections, that is hardly reason for pragmatic progressives not to think creatively about the sources, uses, and effects of private campaign cash. For those concerned about the distribution of political voice and power in our democracy — not to mention the nation’s ability to address an ominous set of economic, social, and environmental challenges — it may be the most important long-term question we face. And with the Supreme Court set to hand down a landmark decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission on the “free speech” rights of corporations to spend unlimited sums of money on political campaigns, the time for Congress to reconsider this question is now.
This policy paper endeavors to set the stage for meaningful campaign finance reform in the 111th Congress by providing an analytical framework that is better suited to the times. It begins with a critical examination of the dueling views of liberal reformers and their conservative adversaries over the role of money in politics, and posits that the old ways of “regulate and restrict” are out of date. Principles aside, such are the facts of life under a conservative high court.
It then proposes an alternative, two-part framework for reform: (1) a “more speech” approach that levels up rather than limits down speech opportunities for qualified candidates without added regulation; and (2) a more nuanced and evenhanded conception of political influence-peddling in Washington, which favors system-level accountability over anecdotal accusations of vote-buying and political corruption. It concludes with a discussion of legislation now before Congress, the Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 1826 and S. 752), which would establish a voluntary public funding system involving small donors and matching public funds. With its emphasis on small donors and expanding participation, the legislation would go a long way toward achieving the goals of fairness and accountability in American elections.