When the United States Supreme Court today rehears the campaign
finance case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), it
will be calling into question no less than sixty years of established
precedent limiting corporate spending in federal elections.
The case pits conservative advocate Citizens United, famous for its
2008 video decrying then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,
against FEC-enforced limits on corporate spending in federal
elections. Defenders of the law point out that loosening restrictions
on corporate spending would have a profound effect on the distribution
of political speech and power in American democracy, favoring wealthy
special interests at the expense of ordinary citizens. Their concerns
are well-founded in current practice: corporations already exert an
extraordinary influence over public policy through lobbying of
Congress and the public. It would be an assault on democracy to permit
them unlimited spending in the election or defeat of candidates for
But surprisingly absent from today's contentious debate is a
recognition that the legitimate aims of both sides -- preventing
corruption and preserving freedom of speech -- are not, in fact, at
odds under a positively-constructed campaign finance system. Voluntary
public funding of federal elections expands free speech for serious,
hardworking candidates, irrespective of wealth, without limiting
political expression by independent groups.
When campaign finance legislation levels up rather than limits down
political speech, the result is more candidates from diverse
backgrounds competing for support. Call it the ''more speech''
solution to the problem of free speech in campaign finance reform.
Public funding works because when participating candidates have enough
money to make their message known, additional spending by opposing
candidates or groups has little determining effect. Political science
has long shown that candidates must have sufficient funds to introduce
themselves to voters, communicate their values and perspectives, and
answer attacks if they are to mount a credible campaign. Beyond this
level of funding, however, it's ideas, integrity, and experience that
almost always prevail.
The bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act in Congress, combining small
donations with matching public funds, provides just such a solution.
It would leave non-participating candidates, as well as independent
groups, free to spend unlimited money to communicate their ideas -- but
that's not all.
Speech in a democratic society isn't free when only the rich are
heard. Cherishing the First Amendment requires that the opportunity to
speak is extended to qualified candidates for public office
irrespective of wealth. Under the Fair Elections Now Act, candidates
who demonstrate a broad base of public support through small donations
receive competitive matching funds to run a serious campaign. In
return, they agree to forgo large special-interest contributions.
Experience with public funding in states like Arizona and Maine has
shown that most candidates willingly forego the big-money game -- and
the countless fundraising hours it demands -- when presented with a
Fair Elections alternative to special interest funds. More than three-
quarters of candidates in public funding states voluntary participate
in the programs.
Worrisome though today's Supreme Court hearing may be for its
potential to open up the floodgates to still more corporate spending
in federal campaigns, there is an alternative course which steers
clear of both free speech and corruption concerns. Voluntary public
funding of federal elections has long been upheld as constitutional by
the Supreme Court. It is high time lawmakers in Washington act on Fair
Elections legislations now before them in the U.S. House and Senate.