As Democrats scramble to assemble a slate of legislative and constitutional fixes to counter the effects of the Supreme Court decision, conservatives suggest Congress allow even more money to flow into campaigns.
With the president’s budget proposal and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” occupying the time of C-SPAN crews in the capital today, there may have been a perception that campaign finance reform took its dutiful place at the back burner of American political consciousness at a hearing in the Senate Rules Committee Tuesday morning. But Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) wasn’t about to let that assumption stand.
“I really think they show that they care when given a chance,” Durbin said of the American people. He countered the conventional wisdom that campaign finance reform is an “intramural issue.”
Of course, interest in Durbin’s long-time crusade for fair election financing (in the form of his Fair Elections Act) was helped along last month by a highly controversial decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that opened the floodgates, allowing corporations to spend virtually unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.
“I thought [the Fair Elections Act] wouldn’t go anywhere unless there was a major scandal,” Durbin said. “But I think it was this case that was the scandal.”
Durbin’s act is just one of many proposed fixes to solve the many problems brought to light by the case. Several lawmakers have proposed a constitutional amendment to remove some of the individual rights accorded to corporations. Furthermore, there is a legislative effort afoot to give company shareholders more say in how corporate dollars are spent.
In his opening statement, Sen. John Kerry noted the urgency of congressional action, saying, “We must do this quickly to protect the integrity of elections this fall.”
Not only was the decision viewed as scandalous in terms of its effect upon independent voices in elections, but also in terms of the sanctity of legal precedent. The court overturned election law established in the 1986 case Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce when they ruled in the case known as Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission, in a manner which has been described as “activist” by many observers.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and campaign finance expert, called the decision “the most radical and destructive campaign finance decision in the history of the court.” He said that the decision overturned “two decades of precedence… without any relevant change in circumstances, other than the [political] make-up of the court.”
“We should be dismayed by the court’s decision,” Yale Law Professor Heather Gerken told the committee in her opening statement. “Five votes is not a license for vengeance. Five votes is also not a license to do whatever you want to do.”
Durbin laid the blame squarely on Chief Justice John Roberts, who was confirmed partially on the assertion that he understood his job would be “to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.”
“This Citizens United decision makes clear that he’s an umpire on steroids,” Durbin quipped.
It appears Democratic leadership in the House agrees with such a sentiment; a hearing scheduled for tomorrow in that chamber is titled, “Defining the Future of Campaign Finance in an Age of Supreme Court Activism.”
The argument for the conservative side was represented by three members of the panel who argued that the previous campaign finance rules were unconstitutional and that many of the proposed fixes would be similarly struck down by courts.
The near-universal absence of Republican lawmakers at the hearing spoke volumes to this observer about the efficacy of such an argument with an American public that is clearly disillusioned by the relationship between money and politics.
The only Republican lawmaker who questioned the panel was ranking member Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT). His initial argument in support of the Supreme Court decision was to say that political advertising, even when backed by huge corporate checkbooks, don’t always influence elections. Sometimes, he said, ads are just plain “stupid.”
“Can anybody say ‘New Coke?’” Bennett asked. “Just because someone has the right to speak does not mean he or she will speak intelligently.”
Durbin told Bennett he agreed with the principle that the candidate is more important than the amount of campaign contributions, but “we know if you don’t have money to get your message out, you will lose.”
Perhaps feeling the heat at being the only Republican actively involved in the hearing, Bennett attacked failures to clean up politics in the past as a reason not to fight the Supreme Court ruling.
Noting that many on the left deplore political action committees (PACs) for their corrosive influence on campaigns, Bennett said “I remember Watergate, and PACs were the reform” in response to that scandal.
“Having worked on the legislation, I disagree that PACs were the reform,” Wertheimer responded, adding that campaign reform legislation died in the House at the time just after the Watergate scandal.
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as McCain-Feingold, came under fire as well. Bennett said that “the goal of taking big money out of politics was not achieved by this law.”
Wertheimer again countered that Bennett was getting intentions confused. McCain-Feingold “wasn’t about big money; it was about big contributions,” Wertheimer said. “That’s what the soft money ban took out of the system.”
Bennett thanked Wertheimer for the clarification.
There was also an attempt to slander current legislation as ineffective and corrupt. Steve Hoersting, vice president and co-founder of the Center for Competitive Politics, an anti-campaign finance reform group, said he was concerned by certification provisions in Durbin’s Fair Elections Act. He said that after an election is held, a board may be able to invalidate the win if the successful candidate did not comply with the election law. “You may owe [the win] to the administrative grace of a fair elections commission.”
“That’s not in my bill,” Durbin interrupted. After a short back-and-forth, Hoersting relented.
In a room where everyone believes campaign financing is flawed, but for a multitude of different and conflicting reasons, one single solution was impossible to come by. Those on the left were clearly aligned in favor of a multitude of legislative and constitutional fixes. On the right, they seemed to suggest more money as the solution.
Much in the way that free market reforms assume that the market will balance itself out, Hoersting argued that money would be spent in large quantities on both sides of whatever issue was present in a campaign. He added that candidates and political parties should be released from all spending limits as well. Citizens should be allowed to decide for themselves which side has the more “valid” argument, he said.
“Put yourself in a position where you can afford your campaigns,” he urged senators.
Committee Chair Chuck Schumer (D-NY) questioned the idea that there would be equal amount of money to be spent on both sides of any political issue:
“Don’t you agree that’s unrealistic?” he asked Hoersting. “I think you’re living in a different world than we live in. It would be nice.”
The only member of the panel holding elected office agreed with Schumer.
“Campaigns would be much more fun in academia than in the real world,” said Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock. “Our campaigns are small compared to the corporations.”
While each side of the political divide seemed to see the other as residing in a completely different ethical universe, the one thing both could agree on is that a whole bunch of money is spent in elections, and that 2010 will be no exception. While conservative members of the panel urged lawmakers to “wait and see what happens” before legislating reforms in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, for politicians the wait seemed unnecessary, even for the leader of the minority.
Bennett closed the hearing by saying that he was feeling electoral pressure brought to bear by an “outside group having little or nothing to do with the state of Utah” in his reelection battle, noting that the candidates running against him are not themselves well-financed.
“I really don’t like it, but it’s their constitutional right. And I don’t want to do anything to prevent them,” he added.
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