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Published on Saturday, March 24, 2001
Passing the Bucks: Congress Debates the Wrong Question on Campaign Reform
by Jeff Milchen
The debate on the McCain-Feingold bill and soft money reform illuminates how far we’ve strayed from the ideal of one person, one vote. Rather than starting with that goal and considering the necessary steps to achieve it, the present discussion originates with the dubious assumption that spending money to influence elections is a “right.” We then ponder how to limit the inevitable damage to our country that results from such a premise.

While McCain-Feingold attempts to close one avenue for the corrupting influence of money, it ignores the root problem and, disturbingly, suggests that hard money (contributions directly to candidates) is somehow legitimate because it is overt. Should we feel better about our government being sold because we know who’s buying it?

Democracy will backslide if a proposed deal to raise hard money limits is attached to McCain-Feingold because it would shift much soft money (given to the parties) to more valuable hard money contributions. If the bill is not weakened by such a trade-off, it would be an improvement, at least in the short-term. But even modest reductions in corruption may be counter-productive if they reinforce the legitimacy of an inherently anti-democratic system--one that had Senator Bob Dole calling for “cleaning up the campaign sewer money” even before soft money became a major factor.

Money and incumbency are the dominant factors in determining elections, and the two drive each other like interlocked gears. Incumbents won more than 96 percent of Congressional contests in which they ran last year and the highest-spending candidate won 94 percent of races. Only seven of 432 races that involved an incumbent were won by a lower-spending challenger.

For most citizens, the $2000 limit on hard money contributions to candidates (per candidate, per election cycle) is like placing a 60 MPH speed limit on bicycling. Just one-tenth of one percent of Americans made a political contribution of $1,000 or more in 2000, yet both Bush and Gore received 75 percent of their direct contributions from these individuals. Allowing wealth to readily translate to political power at dollar amounts beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest precludes a government that serves the broader public interest.

A poll of major hard money (direct contributions to candidates) donors (by Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates) following the 1996 elections negated the laughable contention that such donors merely are “exercising free speech.” Seventy-six percent of those donors confirmed that “influencing policy/government” was a “very important” reason for contributing. And their investment was repaid with levels of access to federal officials beyond the reach of those of us who rely on our voices or word processors for our “speech.”

Recent attempts to control money’s influence within this existing paradigm have been thwarted repeatedly. Such efforts have failed not only to make improvements, but even to slow the march toward government of, by, and for money.

In January, the Supreme Court responded to our crisis of democracy with an encouraging decision in Nixon v Shrink Missouri Government PAC. The Court upheld low campaign contribution limits as means of preventing both actual and perceived corruption and rejected the idea that someone must document money changing hands for a specific vote to verify that corruption exists. The Court also suggested a willingness by a majority of justices to reclaim democracy from the jaws of moneyed interests by overruling the 1976 Buckley v Valeo decision’s “money as speech” premise outright. Justice Stevens was explicit. In his concurring opinion, Stevens wrote “money is property; it is not speech."

To solve our problem, we first need to ask the right question, namely “what conditions are necessary to ensure equal protection for citizens?” We must redefine campaign contributions from a right to a privilege—a privilege subject to whatever limits are needed to prevent those with money from drowning out the speech of those who lack it.

Rather than waiting passively for the Supreme Court to do the right thing, Americans should demand action to clearly distinguish expressing one’s opinion--“speech” as the Constitution intends it--from spending money to amplify one’s speech above others’. Only then can we, the citizens--the demos of democracy--have government that truly represents us.

Jeff Milchen is the director of , a grassroots organization devoted to achieving the ideal of one person, one vote and revoking the power of money and corporations over civic society.

Most data is from Center for Responsive Politics, or Common Cause,


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