Reclaiming Democracy Means Getting Money Out of Politics

Date: 19 Nov 1996 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Reclaiming Democracy Means Getting Money Out of Politics

by David Morris

November 19, 1996

This was the election we learned that money doesn’t just talk, it screams. Campaign spending broke the $1 billion mark. Both political parties sunk to new lows in financial sleaziness.

We learned that if you want to handicap an American election all you have to do is count the money. This year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, in more than 90 percent of the House races and 80 percent of the Senate races the candidate with the most money won. To be a serious contender, House incumbents must raise more than $5,000 every week of their term while Senators must raise $15,000 every week.

How corrupting is this constant search for money? As the Atlanta Journal and Constitution observes, “The more money they needed to raise, the more they had to beg. And the more they had to beg, the more vulnerable they became to those who want something in return for their money.”

Few candidates raise much money from the little guy. Eighty percent of the campaign money raised in 1994 came from large individual contributors or PACs.

This year the anger Americans feel about the corrosive effects of money on democracy made itself felt at the ballot box. By a vote of 59 to 41 percent, residents of Maine endorsed the Clean Election Act which limits campaign contributions and spending and provides for public financing of state elections. In California, Colorado and Arkansas more modest campaign finance measures also triumphed.

If politicians listened to those who put them in office, their first congressional action would not be to set up a commission to study Medicare nor to develop strategies to further reduce the deficit. It would be to pass a law that puts the demos back in democracy by getting money out of politics.

Both political parties promise to fix the money problem. Passing the McCain-Feingold bill would mark an important step forward. Don’t hold your breath. A week after the election campaign finance reform already is taking a back seat to other issues. The fund raising advantage of incumbents is formidable. They’ll not relinquish it without a fight.

Indeed, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator Mitch McConnell have informed us that we spend too little on elections. Gingrich dismisses any criticism of the harmful effect of big money on democracy as a “nonsensical socialist analysis based on hatred of the free enterprise system”. Gingrich’s comment prompted this angry response from the editorial board of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, “Many good Americans who believe deeply in the free enterprise system also believe that certain things should not be for sale to the highest bidder.”

Unfortunately, it is not only Congress that stands in the way of democratic finance reform. A bigger obstacle is the Supreme Court. Back in l976, in one of the most absurd and dangerous decisions in its long history, the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech. The high court insisted that curbing the right of a billionaire to spend a billion dollars to win elected office violates his or her first amendment rights. Earlier this year the Supreme Court reaffirmed that decision when it opened the floodgates for soft money into this election campaign.

The ACLU to its everlasting shame argued the l976 case before the Supreme Court. Last week the Maine Civil Liberties Union announced that it will challenge Maine’s Clean Election Act. Conceivably the Supreme Court could overturn every one of the state campaign financing initiatives enacted this year.

Dozens of constitutional scholars are trying to mount a campaign to get the Supreme Court to change its mind. A simpler and probably shorter strategy is to enact the following constitutional amendment. “The spending of money does not constitute speech.”

We have a system of one person, one vote. But when some people can spend millions of dollars influencing others, when candidates must attract millions of dollars to contest election, democracy withers.

We need to limit campaign contributions and spending and provide public financing and free or low cost media time for candidates. The internet enables every candidate to disseminate his or her positions to interested voters at minimal cost. We should provide public financing for debates and candidate presentations. Finding the money for that should be very easy. If we cease allowing lobbying to be a tax deductible expense we might raise sufficient tax revenue to pay for the public financing initiative. Indeed, Maine’s clean elections initiative raises the registration fee per lobbyist to $400.

The 1996 election marked the end of our innocence. As Fred Wertheimer, former head of Common Cause writes, this election marked “a collapse of the system on a scale we simply haven’t seen before”. Before the next election we need revive our faltering democracy by taking big money out of politics.

David Morris is vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.