Before the court this month is the disastrous McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, the most momentous and well-publicized, and also the most futile, of the many congressional efforts over the last thirty years to limit the extent to which money influences politics. In a 2003 decision that has been rightly derided by free speech advocates, the court by a vote of 5-4 upheld the constitutionality of the Act’s ban on “soft money” and on TV ads that mention a candidate for federal office within 60 days of a general election.
This time around, the court is debating McCain-Feingold’s exception for certain “issue” ads, which are not considered political endorsements when they do not specifically mention the name of a candidate. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate ads touting issues from ads touting pols who support those issues. The insanity of this murky attempted boundary is what has occupied an enormous amount of time of judges, bureaucrats, and lawyers – all without achieving any clarity. The constitutionality of this provision is being challenged by the nonprofit Wisconsin Right to Life, an anti-abortion group. The FEC penalized the group last year for airing ads urging Wisconsinites to contact the state's two U.S. senators and tell them not to filibuster President Bush's judicial nominees. Because one of those senators, Democrat Russell Feingold (coincidentally, one of the campaign finance reforms act’s namesakes), was up for reelection, the group was told that the inclusion of Feingold’s name turned its grass-roots anti-abortion campaign into an "electioneering communication" that could not be legally aired before the election.
As the Wisconsin Right to Life example proves, the McCain-Feingold act, although well-intentioned, clearly tramples on one of the most fundamentally important guarantees of the Constitution: the right for a citizen to criticize one’s government and to petition for what the First Amendment calls “a redress of grievances.” In my view, there needs to be a major shift in the debate over fair elections and a newfound emphasis on restoring some sense of voter and candidate equality and access to the system without sacrificing free speech. Lawmakers should repeal campaign financing restrictions and instead institute a modest system of public financing of campaigns. Every candidate who demonstrates his or her credibility by collecting enough signatures would be eligible for public money to run a campaign. The American Civil Liberties Union has been proposing a system like this for decades, thus far to no avail. What the current system has gotten us is not a diminution in the role of money in politics – that would be simply impossible to achieve in a free society – but, rather, a system where the benefits of incumbency are huge because current officeholders have so much more access to money and to the news media than do the challengers. If we want to throw the bums out, we need to open up the system by getting rid of McCain-Feingold and other such ill-considered and unconstitutional restrictions on the free speech rights of the electorate.
Meanwhile, Congress should abandon this absurd notion that support for issues and support for candidates can, or should, be separated. Citizens and political groups should be able to vocally support candidates however they see fit.. Let free speech and fair elections both flourish.
When rules are written to cut off money in one arena, that money inevitably finds its way into the electoral system through a back door. It’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse. Only a strictly enforced publicly funded campaign system could put this tiresome game to an end and, incidentally, put some of the army of campaign finance lawyers out of business.
We have had some form of campaign finance restrictions for many decades, with the restrictions becoming stricter and stricter with each attempt at “reform.” In order to assess the impact of this effort to “wring big money out of politics,” one has simply to compare the quality of our politics, our political discourse, and our office-holders, with each passing decade. I rest my case.