Campaign finance reform has failed. It hasn’t gotten money out of politics, quite the opposite. But it has stifled political speech, the heart of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court this term will hear a challenge to the part of McCain-Feingold that prohibits corporations and labor unions and nonprofit advocates from mentioning a candidate’s name in an ad 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election. Now what?
Mark Schmitt was in the thick of the fight for campaign finance reform. In a long article in the spring issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (free registration required but worth it), he looks back on it with an honesty and clarity that reformers of all stripes would do well to emulate. Instead of hugging McCain-Feingold ever closer and vilifying those who find ways around it, he reexamines what he was trying to do and why it didn’t work. (This kind of reflection is vanishingly rare on any issue or from any point in the political spectrum; if you know of other examples, I’m all ears.)
Reformers wanted to remove “bad money” from the system. When I wrote about this for the Reader July 25, 1997, they acknowledged that they’d have to keep plugging one new loophole after another. Schmitt points out that whoever’s not plugged yet becomes very powerful, whether it’s movie stars or bloggers.
“And even if you could restrict every avenue, would you want to? The goal of political reform should be to expand the range of choices and voices in the system.” Given the emergence of the netroots and more political involvement generally, he recycles the old ACLU idea of “floors without ceilings” — public funding not tied to spending limits. He likes New York City’s system, where small campaign contributions receive a four-to-one match, allowing the less affluent to speak the money language a little louder, without limiting the speech of the affluent.
This subject is never going to be easy, because Americans believe both in democracy (where every one counts for one and not more than one) and in capitalism (where the wealthy can own whatever they can buy). Those ideals are in tension with each other. What I like about Schmitt is that he has learned something from libertarian skeptics on the mechanics, without capitulating to their desire that almost all politics be subsumed under economics.
“Don’t build complex systems that put government in the position of trying to equalize all resources or ban all contributions,” says Schmitt now — build simple ones that expand access.