For as long as people have been running for office, critics have bemoaned the corrosive influence of money in politics. For years these self-appointed reformers have pressed the strong arm of government to limit who can spend what to advance a political objective.
One of the bigger reform movements of the past generation culminated in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 or “BCRA.” Spearheaded by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), BCRA (also known as “McCain-Feingold”) tightened constraints on spending, especially outside of formal campaign infrastructure. McCain made the reform effort a signature issue and has worn it as a badge of honor ever since.
A number of legal challenges have since chipped away at the restrictions of BCRA, leaving McCain and other advocates increasingly demoralized. In particular, ruling in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court struck down certain limits on spending by corporations and unions. The 2010 decision helped spawn the proliferation of so-called “SuperPAC” organizations, which can raise unlimited funds for the purposes of making independent political expenditures.
McCain was dumbfounded. “[T]he system is broken,” he griped to NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I predict to you there will be scandals.”
And scandals there will surely be, as there have been in nearly in every political administration.
But is the free flow of money really to blame? How did it become an article of faith that more spending makes our political culture dirtier than before?
Put aside that every attempt to regulate political spending turns into a game of “whack-a-mole.” Campaign professionals always find a way to skirt the rules and satisfy the demand to spend money.
Perhaps it’s worth considering instead whether our founders had a good idea when they enshrined the right of free expression in the Constitution. What is a greater menace to our democratic culture: individuals and organizations competing freely with resources of their own choosing, or a bureaucracy enforcing arbitrary boundaries with criminal penalties?
Would-be protectors of our society fret that President Obama raised $1.1 billion to get reelected in 2012, and that leading candidates for 2016 will go even higher. Total political spending in 2012 probably topped $5.8 billion. This may seem like a lot until you realize that the automotive industry spent over $14 billion advertising in the U.S. last year alone. Shouldn’t the selection of our political leaders and public policy warrant marketing dollars at least as sizeable as those for the newest Toyota Tundra?
What campaign finance warriors really object to is not the volume of money in politics. What really grates at them is the ability of wealthy donors to spend their own money as they see fit.
Launching his campaign for president late last month, the self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders summed it up well. “The country belongs to all of us and not just the billionaire class,” he told a meeting of reporters and editors at Bloomberg. It doesn’t seem to matter that politically active billionaires span the political spectrum, including Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers on the right, and Tom Steyer and George Soros on the left.
When you pick apart the money in politics critique, it sounds a lot like the misguided FCC policy calling for “Equal Time” in broadcasting. In today’s multifaceted, highly competitive and fragmented news content marketplace, it doesn’t really matter if a broadcaster favors a political faction. Disaffected citizens can turn to alternative networks, talk radio, online publishers, social media, and more.
Likewise, it doesn’t silence debate when a billionaire backs a pet cause or candidate. How many millions did Michael Bloomberg spend fruitlessly to back gun control candidates in Colorado? How much did Sheldon Adelson’s multimillion dollar support for Newt Gingrich derail Mitt Romney’s campaign for the GOP presidential nomination? What about Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate efforts in the 2014 mid-term election campaign?
The simple truth is that big spending adds color, content, and energy to our political culture. It opens doors to political messages and candidates that might otherwise go unnoticed. When 20 or more candidates are legitimately competing for the GOP nomination in 2016, we can thank generous wealthy donors and their SuperPACs for our wide array of choices. If there is any hope of a candidate rising to challenge Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, it will also depend on a few big-spending sponsors.
A free society depends on more liberty not less. Those who would handcuff political speech in the name of a level playing field are no different than those who push for taxes and subsidies to advance a favored industry. The only ones who benefit from government limits on campaign spending are incumbents and entrenched special interests. As long as funding is transparent, we should let it flow.