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Jake Whitney

Jake Whitney

Posted: January 13, 2010 03:37 PM

Campaign Finance: Back to the Era of the Robber Barons?

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The most important issue no one is talking about right now is campaign finance.

In a ruling expected this week, the Supreme Court is set to strip restrictions on election spending, some of which have been in place since Watergate. If the Court rules as experts believe it will, corporations, unions and other interest groups will be allowed to spend virtually unlimited sums of money in political campaigns and on political advertising.

This means that corporations and special interests will wield an even greater degree of influence over the political candidates that become elected and the laws they enact. While advocates of less restrictive campaign finance laws frame this as a free-speech issue - money equals speech, they say -- the result will be diminished political influence for the individual voter, and that is antithetical to democracy and to the intentions of our Founding Fathers.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) is the co-author of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 -- better known as McCain-Feingold -- the law instituting some of these restrictions. Feingold has declared that the expected Supreme Court ruling would take the U.S. "not just back to a pre-McCain-Feingold era, but back to the era of the robber barons in the 19th century."

If Feingold's statement appears hyperbolic, it isn't by much. Because if a corporation like Wal-Mart is free to spend as much as it needs to get a politician elected, how on earth is that politician going to vote for legislation that negatively affects Wal-Mart's interests - no matter how much that politician might otherwise believe in the merits of the legislation?

Take a hypothetical homeland security bill. Many people don't know that Wal-Mart actively campaigns against tighter screening of cargo containers fearing that increased inspections will slow its supply lines. Yet many experts cite 100 percent screening of containers to be a necessary step in protecting our homeland against a terrorist attack. So what happens when a politician with a strong dedication to security matters but who has been bankrolled by Wal-Mart needs to vote on a bill that includes increased container screening? It's not hard to imagine him rejecting such legislation to ensure Wal-Mart's support in his re-election campaign.

This kind of political quid pro quo -- trading campaign contributions for votes -- is a serious concern in our current political climate. Just think how much worse it will be when corporations are free to spend whatever they like.

But even beyond the quid pro quo concerns is the firm belief, shared by multitudes, that more money in our political system is not the direction we should be headed. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) told me recently that the pressure on members of Congress to raise money is already worse than it's ever been -- and she's been in the House for 26 years. Kaptur talked of one congressman who spent 90 percent of his time on the telephone fundraising. The obvious question becomes: How the heck did he get anything done? If the Supreme Court rules the way it's expected to, situations like this will only get worse.

Those in favor of turning back the restrictions assert that special interests are simply groups of individuals advocating a particular issue or candidate, and that restricting what they can spend in this endeavor is the same as limiting their speech. But this is a specious argument. Rolling back campaign finance regulations would result not only in increased political influence by special interests and politicians spending too much time fundraising, but also in a huge increase in negative political ads, as well as the possibility -- if not the probability -- of increased corruption, and thus even more cynicism about our political system.

One doubts this is what the Founders had in mind when pondering the benefits of free speech to our inchoate republic.

What we need is less money in politics, not more. This should not be a partisan issue. But since Republicans have more to gain by eliminating campaign restrictions than Democrats do, it unfortunately has become one. The good news is that Democrats have said they will implement new regulations if the Supreme Court unravels existing ones. It will be interesting to see how President Obama reacts to all of this. During his campaign, Obama promised to update campaign finance laws. If he keeps his word, however, it could hurt his chances for re-election since the big money usually goes to incumbents. Let's hope he does it anyway.