Disappearing Corruption

Supreme Court decision endorsing campaign finance act gives power back to the people

On Dec. 10, 2003, soft money took its rightful place beside libel, obscenity and false advertising as a form of speech prohibited in the name of the public good. In a surprise decision, the Supreme Court upheld nearly all the major provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA)—including a ban on unlimited donations to political parties, known as soft money, and new laws regulating television advertising bought on behalf of candidates by their corporate and union supporters.

BCRA’s opponents had claimed that banning soft money and restricting advertising was tantamount to limiting the right to free speech of corporations, unions and special interest groups. In rejecting this argument, the Supreme Court declared, in effect, that the importance of protecting of these means of speech was outweighed by the need to prevent the appearance of corruption in politics. The Court was right to make the reduction of apparent corruption a primary concern. In a country where the more monied candidates win 90 percent of the elections, the influence of wealthy donors cannot be denied. The Framers certainly would not have wanted political parties catering to the blank checks of special interests.

At the heart of campaign finance reform is the notion that the rich shouldn’t be allowed to unduly influence politics. The appearance of this undue influence—real or imagined—was widespread before the signing of the BCRA. Companies gave most to the very politicians who sat on the committees charged with regulating them. And they spent heavily on the campaigns of their strongest political advocates. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., a recipient of over $74,000 of auto industry donations from 1995 to 2000, led the fight against new rollover potential ratings for SUVs: a cause he dropped only after the Firestone-Ford debacle brought rollover tragedies to the forefront. When the House was still considering whether to fund the Justice Department’s lawsuit against the tobacco companies in 2000, the 207 House members who voted to block this funding received an average of five times more money from the tobacco companies in the last two election cycles than those who voted for the funding. These kinds of examples, where only a few dots need be connected to infer political corruption, are what the BCRA and campaign finance reform in general will stop for good.

By accepting the main provisions of the BCRA, the Court established a strong, lasting precedent in favor of the practical consideration of reducing the appearance of corruption. With politicians now forced to rely on small, maximum $2,000 donations called hard money, the $200 check written by an autoworker or a dry-cleaner carries more meaning than ever. With BCRA regulations in effect, the most successful fundraisers will win the distinction with the sheer number of donations they solicit, not with the buying power of a few wealthy executives. With so many voices behind a candidate’s campaign, the politician is more likely to cater to the public interest, instead of a few special ones.

Building on this victory, congressional supporters of campaign finance reform have introduced two other significant measures to fix additional problems with the system. The first seeks to shore up public funding for presidential campaigns, which provides candidates with matching public funds if they adopt voluntary spending limits. The current upper bound to these funds is too low—a fact illustrated by George W. Bush’s, Howard Dean’s and Sen. John F. Kerry’s decisions to forego federal funds in their primaries. This proposal is a necessary outgrowth of the BCRA, since it will encourage the adoption of spending limits and reduce further candidates’ exposure to special interest money. The second proposal, a bill introduced by Sen. John S. McCain, R-Ariz., to reorganize the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), which is tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws, also deserves congressional support. The FEC must be given greater authority and legitimacy to implement these new laws. With campaign finance-related investigations already launching, including one against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the FEC needs clout and power to make campaign finance reform the unchallenged law of the new political landscape. Additional measures like these will guarantee that the Supreme Court’s decision truly transfers power from the special interests back to the American voters, where it belongs.