The Supreme Court ruling last week allowing corporations to contribute money more freely to political campaigns has critics ready to take up torches and pitchforks and storm the castle.
The 5-4 ruling overturned limits on corporate contributions to political candidates. The majority opinion didn't address whether money should be kept out of campaigns, just whether the law in question is a violation of the First Amendment. Nonetheless, a great hue and cry has gone up lamenting a future with no controls over crooked politicians being bankrolled by wealthy sugar daddies.
But before we conclude that the sky is falling, let's assess the ruling's impact. Start with this question: Have federal limits kept money from corporations and other groups out of the political arena? The answer is an emphatic "no." If that's the case, why worry over removing restrictions that weren't restricting much to begin with?
Campaign finance laws exemplify how attempts to regulate a free market can create more problems than they solve. The court decision may have exposed them for what they really are: An ineffective limit on political expression.
Money always finds its way into politicians' pockets. Campaign cash can be compared to the flow of a great river; you can erect a dam to stop it, but it will find another route around. More laws have led to more loopholes that clever operatives exploited. Soft money, 527 advocacy groups, PACs — any sort of trail can be blazed to get around roadblocks for those who have the will and means to do so.
It's supply and demand. Corporations, unions and interest groups have money to spend on political races. Candidates want that money to fund their operations. As long as there is a need and a desire to fill it, all the laws in Washington won't keep that cash from pollinating campaigns.
So if we acknowledge that limiting political money is difficult at best, and a losing battle at worst, perhaps the goal should be different. Rather than seek to limit funds, laws should be geared toward creating a system so transparent that all money given and spent is fully accounted for. Knowing who is giving how much to whom can help voters make informed choices at the polls.
It's worth noting that not all money from special interests represents evil intent. We toss the term around, but "special interests" describe myriad organizations and causes that touch our lives. The AARP is a special interest, as are the Democratic and Republican parties, the ACLU, the Christian Coalition, Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association, county and city governments, the Lake Lanier Association and numerous groups working to cure diseases and champion social causes. What appears as sleazy lobbying to one may be a just cause to someone else.
That said, it's also true that the yin and yang of our economy — corporations and labor unions — are the biggest spenders in campaigns and expect the most in return (last year, six of the top 20 donors were unions, most of the rest big businesses). Each side is looking to benefit its constituents — shareholders and workers — and push for laws and regulations that favor their interests. Yet as long as voters have the ability to track where the money goes, they can decide whom to support.
Campaign finance restrictions are designed to do for us what we often won't — and some say can't — do for ourselves: Dig for the unvarnished truth about an issue or candidate. The powerful influence of money in campaigns blinds the public with glitz and hype instead of substance, or so the argument goes.
There's some truth to that, but that view also is based on the notion that only the wise souls in Washington — who all, by the way, got elected with the money they now want to deny to potential challengers — can solve this dilemma. In their paternalistic manner, they seek to shield voters' eyes from the horrors that unfettered political money can create, while shutting the door behind them once they are safely in office.
Politics is a zero sum game; winners make the rules. It's no coincidence that as more campaign finance laws are passed, incumbents have raised ever more massive war chests that keep challengers at bay. Last year, House incumbents won 94 percent of their races, with the rate running 88 percent to 98 percent the last 20 years (in the Senate, it was 83 percent). Thus, finance limits haven't opened the field to more players by freeing up funds; instead, they benefit those already in the game.
Some argue that campaigns should be financed only with public money, as we do in a limited way in presidential elections. But that's taking another private enterprise that injects cash into the economy and nationalizing it - your tax dollars given directly to candidates, whether you support them or not, in the hope they may visit your town and leave a little of it behind.
Such a system would provide all candidates with equal cash footing, another goal many share. It's true that the best-funded candidates win most often. Yet in some cases, candidates flush with cash (often their own) lose races because they can't sell whatever ideas are pitched by their slick ads. Give the American people some credit; they can sift through the hype when given the information they need.
Money itself isn't the problem. It's the deals politicians often make with their supporters to secure it, and their abuse of power when returning those favors. Making that relationship clear and accessible is the best way to see that money changes hands above the table, not under it, and that the cleansing light of full disclosure keeps overt corruption to a minimum.
Campaign funds are necessary to fuel political races by giving candidates the best way to deliver their message to voters. What voters do with that message once it is received is up to them.