The issue of campaign finance reform is a perennial political question with some large implications for freedom of speech in America. Talk of reform is to be expected after the Clinton era of accepting political contributions from the Chinese government, Buddhist nuns and White House overnight guests. The main message from self-proclaimed reformers like Vice President Gore and erst-while Republican candidate John McCain is that money, in itself, is a corrupting influence in our political process and must be constrained by limiting the amount voters can give to any candidate. If all citizens, rich or poor, give in small amounts and there is no “soft money” (funding given to a candidate indirectly, such as that donated to his party as a whole), the whole process of electing candidates who represent our views will be more honest. Or so they say.
But the reformers’ strategy overlooks a basic point of politics: Elections are about the expression of common values through collective decision-making. One of the ways we exercise our freedom is to financially support the candidates who best represent our views. In 1975, in Buckley vs. Valeo, the Supreme Court allowed a limit of $1,000 per person, which, when adjusted for inflation, today is worth about $350. The years since this ruling have seen the development of pronounced apathy and lack of participation in the political process. Why? Because to limit the ability of individuals to make political contributions is to limit their ability to support the issues and candidates of their choosing. In other words, contribution caps block citizens from participating as fully as they can in political dialogue.
McCain and Gore further argue that, since the “taint” is in the money, it is better for the government to hand out the required allotment to campaigns than it is to allow citizens to freely express their views through political contributions. Gore is proposing a “Democracy Endowment” — a federal endowment fund to underwrite elections, effectively ending the relationship between giver and politician. Creating a new government bureaucracy which decides how much money goes to candidates would do something antithetical to giving voters the right to exercise political freedom: It would advance a form of socialism.
Sever the link between the voter and the candidate, and there will be only more apathy.
In a democracy, money is speech, the modern equivalent of a soapbox. Author Mark Helprin said in The Wall Street Journal, “Put the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, the NEA, the AFL-CIO, People for the American Way, Emily's List and the Sierra Club on budgets of $2 million per annum, and let's see if money is or is not speech.” These organizations do not want to give up their soapboxes; neither should individual voters be forced to give up theirs.
In a democracy, the goal should be to create a dynamic political debate, especially on the occasion of electing individuals who will serve for several years and make many important policy decisions.
Pressing for smaller expenditures from party coffers, McCain and Gore assume that government financing of elections will get rid of corruption. But any move that takes political freedom away from the individual is detracting from the integrity of the democracy. More government control of elections means more regulations and control of information.
Private funding, meanwhile, means less government control and more initiatives like that of George W. Bush, who did not accept government money for his Republican presidential-nomination campaign and, as a result, had no limit on how much he could raise. Reformers view with horror Dallas businessman Sam Wyly, the Bush friend who spent about $2 million on TV ads critical of McCain's environmental recor. This man used his own money to exercise political speech and put information on an issue he cared about into politcal debate.
Restrictions on money do not eliminate the influence of special interests, but merely shift power to another set of interests — labor unions that provide door-to-door campaigning and man phone banks, activist students with time on their hands, and the media. The beneficiaries of “reform” are all liberal.
The role of money in the political life of a democracy is never without problems. But making citizens less free for the sake of more government control is, in the long run, counterproductive and dangerous. Money provides people with a voice to support their candidate, to fight for their issues. Sever the link between the voter and the candidate, and there will be only more apathy about politics, more uninvolved citizens.
Limiting citizen contributions is not real reform, but a denial of legitimate avenues of speech to private individuals.
Now that America is wealthier than at any time in its history, spending money on political speech and moral causes would make for a more dynamic political culture — one in which people overcome inertia and feel part of a working democracy. Let's have more freedom and less government control of citizen choices.
Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America, writes from Washington, D.C.