'People who say that money is speech need to understand if that's true, there are a lot of people in this country that cannot be heard. Money is not speech.' -- US Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.)
Call it step one in the fight to fix our broken election system. But let's not pretend that the Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill that passed the House of Representatives on Valentine's Day is anything more than a small step, one that shows there is some level of support for reform.
While the bill is not the panacea its supporters have made it out to be, it does attempt to redress the imbalances that are threatening our democracy.
The bill won with the support of 198 Democrats, 41 Republicans and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont and now goes to the Senate (a Senate vote was anticipated in late February, after this was written). It would:
Prohibit the use of soft money by national party committees and limit soft money contributions to state party committees to $10,000 and could only be used for get-out-the-vote and registration efforts.
Set individual contribution limits of $1,000 to House candidates, $2,000 to Senate and presidential candidates and $30,000 to political parties. The bill also would index the amounts for inflation.
Raise contribution limits for candidates when they face wealthy opponents.
Restrict the ability of unions, corporations and nonprofit groups to pay for broadcast "issue ads" if the ads referred to a federal candidate and ran within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary. The bill would require that the ads be paid for with hard money through a political action committee.
The current system allows corporations and other groups to legally funnel an unlimited amount of cash to candidates, which runs counter to the spirit of federal election rules and it distorts the way our democracy is supposed to work.
The fact is, big donations buy access -- see Enron -- the average voter does not have. That access can translate into influence and results in a slew of legislation being passed that does little for the average citizen but makes corporate leaders very happy.
That makes it imperative to get this kind of money out of the system. A ban on soft money -- if it can get through the Senate and is signed by the president -- would be a good start, because it will make it more difficult for donors to circumvent contribution limits, but it will not take private money out of the system.
First of all, there are no guarantees that the Shays-Meehan bill will withstand the expected court challenges. As the Washington Post pointed out in the wake of the House vote, the bill's "main provisions -- a ban on unregulated 'soft money' and new regulations on 'issue ads' -- are likely to be challenged by a host of individuals and organizations as violations of the constitutional right to free speech."
And we're not just talking about hard-core Republican opponents. The American Civil Liberties Union has been a long-time opponent of the bill, unions have expressed some misgivings and state political parties and advocacy groups are concerned about the regulations on how they raise and spend money.
I tend to agree with the ACLU argument, especially its contention that restrictions on issue ads violate the Constitution because they would hamper the rights of citizens or groups to speak out. Issues are at the core of election campaigns, the ACLU says, and to limit the rights of groups to comment on these issues amounts to an unconstitutional infringement on their members.
The courts, as a story in the Post pointed out, have backed the ACLU up on this one. The Supreme Court, the Post wrote, ruled in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo "that Congress could not regulate fundraising or spending with respect to independent issue advertising unless the ads expressly advocate a particular electoral outcome with phrases such as 'vote for' or 'vote against.'"
At the same time, however, I agree with supporters of the Shays-Meehan bill who say that the current court standard has allowed private groups and parties to spend huge amounts of cash on ads designed to sway voters -- without admitting that the ads are campaign ads. This, they say, violates the spirit of the Buckley decision.
Of course, issue ads have become a charade. Much of what passed for political advertising during the final weeks of the 2000 election ended with this type of tagline: "Tell Rush Holt to stop raising taxes" or "Tell Mike Ferguson to leave a woman's right to choose alone."
What we need is a voluntary system of full public financing that would give money and free TV time to qualified candidates provided they forgo or severely limit the amount of private contributions they take in. Candidates could opt out, but would have to explain to voters why taking money from the private sector was more important to them than participating in the public finance system.
Elections are integral to a functioning democracy and, as such, need to be paid for with public money. We can no longer leave the funding of our elections to donors who are looking for a return on their dollars.
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of The South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.