Magazine article The American Prospect

Follow the Money

Magazine article The American Prospect

Follow the Money

Article excerpt

Money corrodes democracy in multiple ways. It influences who gets into politics. It allows the wealthy to speak with a louder voice. It compels candidates to spend inordinate time cultivating donors rather than speaking to voters. The money-and-politics dilemma has a partisan aspect as well as a civic one, because the people with the most money are usually conservatives. So liberals either remain purist and not financially competitive or go for the big money and risk selling their souls (and alienating their voting base).

Since the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the Supreme Court has defined campaign contributions as tantamount to free speech. Reformers have tried to use public financing to work around that judicial doctrine. But so much private money is available, especially to Republicans, that President Bush decided to forgo public funding for his re-election campaign in favor of unlimited private money. John Kerry, who will raise far less than Bush, felt compelled to follow suit. Nor does Congress have any interest in funding challengers of House and Senate incumbents. At the state level, Maine enacted a public funding law, but business lobbying has defeated similar efforts elsewhere.

THE MCCAIN-FEINGOLD ACT, LONG THE grail of reformers, was finally enacted in 2002, but in badly watered-down form. Its most important provisions ban soft money (unlimited contributions to parties) and limit ostensibly independent ads supporting or opposing candidates within 60 days of a general election.

Many progressives warned that McCain-Feingold, by failing to limit spending, was worse than nothing. Pure good-government types didn't grasp that in a McCain-Feingold world, the right would have new ways to outspend the left, while unions and progressive soft-money donors would face new constraints.

The worst fears of the critics have been more than vindicated. The latest wrinkle is a proposed ruling by the Federal Elections Commission that would only reinforce the Republican conservative tilt of the whole system. McCain-Feingold explicitly permits unlimited independent expenditures for voter-registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, as well as for organizing drives on behalf of policies or candidates, as long as those efforts are not organizationally coordinated with a candidate's campaign. …

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