Failure of Campaign Finance Reform

It was not as if both the circumvention of “campaign finance reform” and the effect of this purported reform on the political process had not been foretold. When Congress passed the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance law and when the political parties, as a consequence, were financially emasculated, two things happened. First, those who wanted to exercise their free speech rights and influence the political process, by using their own money to fund political causes, found other modalities to join together and organize. Second, the ability to control their own political message moved away from candidates and parties to other, usually more extreme groups. As a consequence, the electorate has become more polarized.

Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code allows independent groups to accumulate unlimited amounts of money for the purpose of voicing their opinions, so long as these organizations do not explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate. Of course, one can directly influence an election without specifically calling for the defeat or election of a particular candidate. The only way campaign finance limitations can pass constitutional muster under the current Supreme Court, is to argue that there is a strong public interest in avoiding political corruption. As a consequence, independently rich people can finance their own campaigns irrespective of campaign finance laws; they cannot corrupt themselves. This puts the less affluent at a distinct disadvantage.

If a campaign finance law is written too broadly, then it becomes harder to argue that the law is only avoiding the appearance of corruption and is not just limiting inconvenient speech. If such a law is written more narrowly, it must allow alternate avenues for political speech. Hence, money flows to these “527” groups.

These 527 groups tend to attract the most passionate and sometimes the most extreme partisans. Unlike parties that try to field candidates across the entire country, and, therefore, tend to eschew the most extreme viewpoints, these 527 groups are narrowly focused institutions who care less for party affiliation and more for ideological purity. As money and speech flow to these outside groups, the moderating and ameliorating influences of traditional political parties attenuate.

In the current election cycle, we now have the insertion of millions of dollars through these groups. So long as these groups on the Left were out spending groups on the Right by six-to-one and so long as their ads suggested that Bush was lying to the American people, the main stream press did not seem too concerned. However, when a modestly-funded group of Vietnam veterans challenges Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry’s description of his Vietnam service, the world wrings its hands about the pernicious influence of these independent groups. Republican Senator John McCain and, to his discredit, President George Bush are pushing to limit 527 groups. At the same time, the Kerry campaign is mounting its own effort to silence inconvenient dissent, by trying to persuade publishers not to publish the book Unfit for Command. Politicians should rarely be trusted to determine which speech and expression are permissible.

For the purposes of argument, let us assume that those veterans who are now criticizing Kerry are mean-spirited ideologues who hate their wives and kick their dogs, the ethos of a free society still grants them the same permission to speak as billionaire George Soros and his Leftist followers. Seeking additional ways to limit 527 groups either will not succeed or the effort will limit First Amendment rights.

Perhaps the only way to restore the moderating influence of political parties is to abandon the current regime of campaign finance reform, save for the public reporting of donors.

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