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Passing the bucks: Campaign finance reform is debating the wrong question

By Jeff Milchen Pacific News Service
Friday March 23, 2001



The debate on the McCain-Feingold bill and soft money reform shows how far we have strayed from the idea of one person, one vote. 

Rather than starting with that goal and considering the steps needed to achieve it, the present discussion begins by assuming that spending money to influence elections is a “right,” then asks how to limit the damage that must follow. 

McCain-Feingold attempts to close one avenue for the corrupting influence of money, but it ignores the root problem and, disturbingly, suggests that hard money (contributions directly to candidates) is somehow legitimate because it is done openly. 

Should we feel better about legislators being bought because we know who's buying? Raising hard money limits as a “compromise” for imposing soft money limits, if passed, will be a moving away from democracy because it would shift much soft money (now given to the parties) to even more valuable hard money contributions. 

Without such a trade-off, the bill 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 led Sen. 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 elections, and the two move 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 all races. Only seven of the 432 races with an incumbent were won by a lower-spending challenger. 

In fact, for most citizens, putting a $2,000 limit per candidate, per election on hard money contributions 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 last year, yet they accounted for 75 percent of the direct contributions received by both Bush and Gore. 

Allowing wealth to translate to political power so directly precludes a government that serves the broader public interest. 

Donors know this. A poll of major hard money donors by Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates following the 1996 elections found 76 percent confirming that “influencing policy/government” was a “very important” reason for contributing. 

And their investment was repaid with access to federal officials beyond the reach of those who rely on our voices or word processors for “speech.” 

Recent attempts to control money's influence while within the existing rules have been thwarted repeatedly – they have not only failed to improve the situation, they have not even slowed the march toward government of, by, and for money. 

In January, the Supreme Court upheld the use of severely limiting campaign contributions as a way to prevent 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. 

A majority of the justices also suggested they were willing to reclaim democracy from moneyed interests by overruling a 1976 decision that saw money as speech. As Justice Stevens wrote, “money is property; it is not speech.” 

We must ask, first, what must be done to assure our citizens equal protection. 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 overwhelming those who lack it. 

Rather than waiting for the Supreme Court to do the right thing, Americans should demand a law that clearly distinguishes expressing an opinion – “speech” as the Constitution intends it – from spending money to amplify one's speech. Only then can we, the citizens – the demos of democracy – have government that truly represents us. 


Pacific News Service commentator Jeff Milchen is director of in  

Boulder, CO.