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 public office.
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.