The so-called “campaign finance reform bill” just passed by the House of Representatives is a new threat to what remains of genuine citizen political involvement in America.
Despite claims that it will lessen the corrupt influence of money in politics, the bill will actually stymie the cleansing influence of citizen action in politics. Drying up the resources and diminishing the clout of grass-roots political organizations – including the parties – the new regime will further entrench the power of big media, big corporations and incumbent politicians. The bill is a recipe for political feudalism.
As written, the House version is nothing less than incumbent protection, refining the current system of support for politicians who get their money from the mobilization of corporate networks of influence, but who don’t want grass-roots groups interfering with the voters’ minds before Election Day.
A key sign of the fundamental dishonesty of the entire campaign finance “reform” effort is the impetus it has received from the Enron debacle. The striking thing about Enron is that, notwithstanding all of the contributions it made to both parties, and notwithstanding that its CEO Ken Lay was the single largest fundraiser for the Bush campaign, Enron was unsuccessful in achieving the advantages it may well have sought.
It failed to realign American energy policy with the U.N.’s Kyoto global-warming treaty – which would have vastly enriched Enron at the expense of American consumers. It failed in any effort to gain an administration bailout of its financial collapse. The Enron story demonstrates business corruption far more graphically than political corruption. And the bill just passed does nothing to prevent the contributions and lobbying that Enron actually undertook. In a non sequitur on the grandest Washington scale, Enron’s failure to avoid failure is offered up as a symbol of effective fat-cat access and pay off.
To remedy such putative “corruption,” the bill will effectively ban issue and advocacy ads by independent groups in the 60 days prior to elections. If you don’t understand how it is corrupt for the Sierra Club or the NRA to inform voters of candidates’ records, don’t worry – I don’t get it either. I don’t think we need Congress to protect us from the corrupt influence of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. And I certainly do think that the new legislation constitutes an assault on the freedom of speech of key independent organizations and grass-roots groups all over the country.
Preventing truly voluntary associations of citizens from talking effectively to their friends and neighbors in the closing days of a campaign is not reform, but repression. This provision ultimately may be found unconstitutional, once it makes its way to the Supreme Court. But much harm to the integrity of America’s political life has already been done by the specious arguments and deceitful posturing undertaken in its advancement.
The bill increases the limits on hard money – direct contributions to politicians – which further expands the already overt fundraising advantage enjoyed by what I call corporate networks of influence. These are high-dollar individual contributions solicited by the wealthy from the wealthy – usually in the interest of wealth. They exhaust or “max-out” the legal limit imposed on individual contributions, by systematically and strategically mobilizing the rolodexes of corporate power brokers. Such networks provide millions of dollars of coordinated contributions to politicians.
And meanwhile, citizen organizations of principle or conscience that lack such unity of material interest might well have members who wish to contribute large amounts of money to help equalize the playing field with those corporate networks, but are prevented from doing so. Financial restrictions on expenditures by voluntary citizen organizations make the playing field not equal, but unequal, and isolate power in the hands of wealthy corporate interests.
The bill also bans “soft money” contributions to political parties, and this is just as bad. Political parties are the principal organizational structures through which grass-roots people still participate in American politics. I do not trust, and believe all Americans should vigorously oppose, the effort to further emasculate the very institutions – the political parties – which give to ordinary citizens their most effective influence on the political process. Lately, once politicians have established their own personal donor bases and are firmly established in office, they are accountable to no one. I certainly understand why incumbent politicians might want the parties hobbled, and responsibility to the voters reduced. But why would the people want this?
The new bill is bad, but that doesn’t mean the current system has been good. The pernicious idea that government has the responsibility to dictate how the people mobilize for free speech and political association has been used by incumbents for decades to defend against the exercise of the people’s liberty. Every step we have taken of so-called reform has, in fact, consolidated the power of the few. And the new bill will make things worse yet.
Instead of tightening the yoke, we should adopt a very simple principle. No dollar vote without a ballot vote. Only those who can step into the voting booth and cast their vote should be allowed to make contributions.
Second, there should be no limits to the amounts of such contributions. Let people contribute to political candidates and causes to the full limit of their devotion and resources.
Finally, full, effective and immediate disclosure should be the standard, so voters can know who is giving what to whom.
The adoption of such a system would greatly reduce the influence of corporations, the media and other non-citizen organizations, and move us toward real freedom for grass-roots people. Instead, for now, we have yet another round of chicken-coop reform – by the foxes.